Pointe Noire

Friday 27 August 2010

About a week ago, Joe and I departed for Pointe Noire in the Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of Congo which is often in the news.)  In order for Joe to get his residence card he had to leave the country and re-enter through Libreville customs.  This could have been a quick trip except you also need a Visa to enter Congo so when we arrived we surrendered our passports for several days to obtain that Visa.  Confusing, I know.

Pointe Noire is a city of about a million people.  It is similar to Port Gentil in that it is a French-speaking community on the ocean.  Being a bigger city also means the problems are bigger.  The city is busy.  There’s definitely more traffic, garbage, beggars, but also more restaurants and shops.

We stayed at a small hotel in the centre of town, which was convenient, as we didn’t have a vehicle.  Every morning we walked to the The Grande, a small café, for breakfast.  They had the best fresh-pressed orange juice and the atmosphere reminded us of a café at home.  Afterwards, we’d walk… and walk… and walk.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, walking around here isn’t that easy.  In Pointe Noire we were dealing with walking through a foot of dirt on the side of the road with large trucks speeding by kicking it all up.  I actually even commented to Joe that I wish I had one of those masks my Dad wears in grain bins as I’m sure inhaling all of the dirt and dust would not be good for my lungs.

The train station is a bustling place.  We happened to walk by it on one of the days where it leaves for the capital city, Brazzaville.  There were hundreds and hundreds of people waiting outside, many of them with bags, boxes and random items on their heads.  People were not happy, there was a lot of yelling and cursing and it looked like there were several fights about to break out.  It was one of the only times where we felt like we were somewhere we probably shouldn’t be.  I imagine, emotions arose as people lined up and waited for hours for the train.  Let me tell you, that is one train I would not want to be on!  (Not to mention, there have been several train crashes and rebel hijackings in the recent past.)

The beach in the city is a lot more developed than in PG and it is also a lot dirtier.  The waves are quite big and there were people surfing.  There are also restaurants and places to stop and get drinks.  The picture below is from Twiga, a hotel and restaurant on the beach where we had lunch one day.  This was one of the nicest places; many of the others were not at all like this.

It is impossible to find any restaurant or shopping chains from home here.  There aren’t even any McDonalds so imagine my surprise when we stumbled upon this…

I didn’t even go in; we have many things to buy right now and sadly, shoes aren’t on the top of our list.

When all was said and done, we were anxious to return to PG.  We were surprised when the travel department told us we would be picked up 4 hours prior to our departure time but didn’t argue… good thing as the airport is nuts!  That was probably the worst airport experience of our lives.  We passed through 2 security checkpoints just to line up to check in.  The room to check in to all flights was packed with people and there weren’t any separate lines for the different flights.  The company that helps us with our travel didn’t even know how things were working.  We spent over an hour ‘in line’ and moved 2 feet only to be moved to another side, which apparently, just funneled into one line in the end anyways.  People were getting angry and yelling as there are a lot of people who butt in line and no one could really make sense of the system.

When we finally got checked in, we had to go through actual security, which was just as disorganized.  It was impossible to figure out what they wanted from us.  There was a table that stopped us and asked us if we had any money on us as apparently you aren’t supposed to take any of it out of the country.  This seemed ridiculous as they use the same currency in Gabon.  I lied and said I had nothing (I had about $60) and Joe lied and said he had nothing (he had about $200.)  They found about $3 on Joe and confiscated it but didn’t find anything else, thank goodness!  We found out later, they told Joe’s boss (who is French) that it was ok if we were going to Gabon but scammed Joe nonetheless.

After a few more security stops, we finally made it through and out on to the tarmac where there were probably half a dozen airplanes all in the same vicinity.  It was completely unclear as to what plane was for which flight and there weren’t those nice airport workers guiding you to your proper plane.  Luckily we made it on the right one.  It took about 3.5 hours to get through all of that for the 1-hour flight to Libreville.

Needless to say, Joe and I are very happy that we are living in Port Gentil.  It may have less restaurants, stores, and certainly no Aldo but it is a lot calmer, better beaches and the utter lack of security at PG’s airport is gladly taken over the craziness of Pointe Noire.

Insert Jaws Theme Music Here

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Below is a picture of something we encountered on the beach at Cape Lopez last weekend.  There are a lot of local fishermen in the area and many of them set out nets in the morning and retrieve their catch later in the day.  I’m assuming this guy got caught in a net and was brought in and gutted on the beach.  I would say the width of his head, eye to eye, would be about a foot and a half.  Joe immediately stated that he was NOT swimming on this side of our ‘island’ if there were sharks that big out there!

Getting Around

Monday 23 August 2010

Getting around in Port Gentil is… interesting.  When you have a vehicle, driving isn’t actually too difficult to get used to.  We drive on the same side of the road and many of the traffic rules are the same except you cannot turn right on a red light, passing in town happens all the time and apparently, horns are often used as signal lights.  Dodging the giant potholes and the legion of taxis prove to be the most challenging part.

There are hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of taxis here.  Vehicles are expensive and not easy to find and the heat makes walking long distances less desirable so many locals use taxis.  All of the taxis belong to the same company and are easy to spot as they are all blue and white.

Taxis use their horns very frequently.  They honk at you to get out of the way, they honk to signal, and most often, they honk to let you know they are available and actually, sometimes I think they honk just for the fun of it.  When there is 1 taxi there are 10 and even though one honked and you turned it down, the other 9 will also honk as they pass just in case you change your mind.

Taxis generally have 4 open seats and the taxi is considered available until every square centimeter of space is used up.  They swerve and pick up more people until the car is plum full.  There aren’t really ‘shoulders’ of the road here so they will literally slam on the breaks right on the road to pick someone up.  (This is where you have to diligently watch when you happen to be driving behind a taxi so that you don’t end up rear-ending them.)

Joe and I have attempted to walk around downtown PG several times.  Sidewalks are a luxury and few and far between.  The ‘sidewalks’ that do exist are in rough shape.  Many of them are made from cement blocks laid over top of the gutters in the road the problem being that for some reason, these cement blocks actually fall the 3-4 feet into the garbage filled gutters.  So while walking, one must dodge the giant gaping holes into garbage, the taxis swerving to avoid the potholes on the road, and if you are me, the lizards that scurry when you take a step.  Someday I’m sure one of those damn things will scare me and I’ll jump to the side and end up in 3 feet of sewage.

Joe and I have been car shopping for me.  Selection is limited and what is available is expensive.  Because of the state of the roads, which will drastically worsen when rainy season hits, you must have 4 x 4.  We’ve been looking at small(er) SUVs and hope to purchase one in the next couple of weeks.  (We are still unsure of how to do that in a completely cash based economy as 10 million cfas (about $20 000 US) are a lot of bills to carry around!)  Until then, we rely on our driver, Cardin who assures us we can phone at any time (even 3 am) for a ride.

Things to Get Used to… Part II

Friday 13 August 2010

6.  Red Dirt

Fine red dirt is everywhere here.  The red dirt is like flour and it coats everything it touches.  Vehicles go zooming by our hotel sending this powder up into the air.  The trees and plants have a thick, dusk-like layer of red on them.  It finds a way into shoes, sandals, clothes, mouth, etc. quite easily.  I made the mistake of buying a pair of white sneakers just before moving here.  They aren’t so white anymore.

7.  Grocery Shopping

There are a few supermarkets here in PG, the newest and best being Super CKdo.  It is probably a quarter of the size of your average Safeway at home.  The wine section is bigger than the entire produce section.  (Some of you may be thinking that might be a good thing, but I don’t want to come home with liver disease!)  One would think, being in a jungle with warm weather all year long there would be a lot of locally grown produce here.  That is not the case; everything is imported.  The selection is miniscule.  This will prove to be a challenge when planning meals, as you are never sure what you might be able to get.

Aside from produce, most of the non-perishable goods are imported from France.  Brands and packaging are unfamiliar so it makes a simple shopping trip into a lesson as you try to figure out what is what.  There also is not a lot of selection.  At home when looking for a can of tomatoes you find half an isle of different brands and varieties.  You can decide between whole or diced, flavoured with spices or plain.  Here, there is 1 variety.  If you want diced, dice them yourself.

8.  Shopping Hours

Shops, including grocery stores, usually open between 8 and 9 am.  They remain open until 1 or 1:30 pm where they will closed for an hour or two for their lunch breaks/siesta.  Around 3:00, everything reopens.  Everything closes for the day at 7 pm.  There are no 24-hour convenience stores or anything of the sort.  Hopefully I never forget an ingredient or run out of milk or something as I’ll be out of luck!

Everything is closed on Sunday.  There are a handful of restaurants that are open but it is hit or miss and if they stay open Sunday, they’ll be closed Monday.

9.  Stray Animals

It is not uncommon to have to shoo away a chicken or rooster from your vehicle at the grocery store parking lot.  There are a lot of stray dogs that wander the streets.  They aren’t particularly hostile nor friendly.  I actually haven’t heard one bark yet.  Goats also make a regular appearance.  While walking along the main road beside the ocean, Joe and I saw a goat hanging out in a park and he must have enjoyed the 3 weddings that took place there earlier that afternoon.

10.  Cost

Things are expensive here!  Most people are surprised to hear that many of the most expensive cities in the world are actually in Africa.  Libreville, the capital city in Gabon, is #3 on that list this year.

To give you an idea of what things cost here, these are a few prices we’ve encountered recently:

Monthly rent for (hopefully) our new house – 4 000$/month
Old El Paso Taco Kit – 12$
Small bunch of Asparagas – 13$
Small men’s deoderant – 9$
Package of 5 men’s razor blades – 50$
Dinner for 2 at your average, mediocre restaurant (by Canada’s standards) with 1 drink each, no appetizers, no dessert – 60$
Couch, loveseat & chair that look like they’re from 10 years ago but really brand new – 4 000$

Coke and local beer can be bought for 1.50$ each in the grocery store but that seems to be the anomaly.

2 Weeks In

Wednesday 11 August 2010

We’ve survived 2 weeks in Port Gentil and are settling into life here.  We spent a week or so looking at various houses and have settled on one.  It is in the paperwork process right now.  We really hope this deal doesn’t fall through, as they often seem to do here.  It is out of our hands now as the company real estate division and the owner of the property work out the details. 

 My days are long and can get a little boring while Joe is at work.  Our hotel is located away from almost everything except Joe’s office so it isn’t easy for me to venture out.  I’ve had a lot of practice hanging out in hotels as of late so I find ways to occupy myself.  (For those of you that are wondering, I’m finished book #4.  Thank god for my Kindle because I sure didn’t have room in my suitcase to lug around books!)

 Joe and I usually go out for dinner.  There are a lot of restaurants here so it has given us a chance to try out a lot of different places.  People eat very late here (restaurants don’t get busy until 8:30 or 9.)  We try to ward off our hunger as long as possible before heading out.  Sometimes ordering can be a challenge as we aren’t always entirely sure of what we are getting but we are learning as we go.  So far, neither of us have gotten sick so I suppose that is a good sign!

 The beaches are the best part of living in Port Gentil.  There are 2 beach areas: Sogara (where the first house we tried to get was located) and Cape Lopez.  The pictures on the previous post are from Cape Lopez, which is probably 20 miles or more of unspoiled, undeveloped beach.  People drive out, park their cars, and hang out virtually undisturbed.  Sogara is a little different as houses border the beach.  Sogara is also located within a bay so the water is a lot calmer.  There is a restaurant there as well as a locals beach club further down.


 We spent Saturday afternoon at Sogara.  Just as we laid down on our towel, I felt something warm and wet on my hand so I shot up to find a dog sitting beside me.  There are a lot of stray dogs in PG but most of them could care less about the people around.  We aren’t sure if this one might have been a pet because he was so friendly.  He sat at Joe’s feet for quite awhile and would join us in the water or follow us if we walked down the beach.  Had we had a house, we might have seriously considered taking him home.

 Below is a picture of the damn lizards that haunt my existence here in Port Gentil.  Sometimes I think I’m getting used to them only to have one take off running beside me and I get startled and am on edge for the rest of my walk.

Sunday Afternoon

Tuesday 3 August 2010

There may be some frustrating things about living in Port Gentil... but you can't beat this!

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