Cultural Differences

Wednesday 30 November 2011

When you move across the world, you expect to encounter innumerable cultural differences.  Most of the times we only think about the big ones (food, language, politics, etc) but I think the hardest to cope with are the little things.

Some things we assume are common sense are actually cultural differences.

Joe's company has a bunch of resources for those moving and living overseas and one of those resources is access to a database of information on other countries.  They talk about everything from climate to currency to finding schools and healthcare.  Last weekend, we were browsing the site looking at Gabon (to see how accurate they were) and I decided to look up Canada.  Reading the "Social Customs" section on our home country was quite amusing and it reminded me of some of the cultural differences we face while living in Gabon.

Some of my favorites are:

"Canadians are most comfortable when given ample personal space during conversation. They prefer not to stand very close when talking, and generally do not punctuate conversation with physical contact."

This is so blatantly different here and it still drives me nuts!  For example, last week I was in a travel agency booking flights to Libreville.  The office is a fair size with 5 travel agents sitting at a long row of desks.  I was the only client in the office at the time and was seated across from a man who was confirming my booking.  The door opened and an older Gabonese woman entered the office and proceeded to sit right beside me.  There were probably 12 other chairs in the room and other agents who weren't serving anyone yet she chose to sit in the chair directly beside me and directly across from my travel agent as if she was in the meeting with me.

The grocery store is another common place where I feel my personal space is being invaded.  In Canada, everyone stands in line at the checkout but we often give the person who is currently being helped more space.  Here, while I'm leaning over my purse trying to count out cash to pay for my purchases, there is almost always someone practically touching me while they watch me count my money.

Probably the most concerning place we notice this is the doctor's office.  The one we use has a desk at the front with blocked off lines to check-in.  It is meant to form a single file line and there really isn't room for 2 people to stand side by side.  One day, Joe was checking in, I stood behind him, and a man shimmied his way past me, right up to the counter beside Joe and looked on as Joe explained why he needed to see the doctor.  It was very awkward (for us) and had the potential to be embarrassing (depending on what you need to see the doctor for.)  Had my vocabulary for communicable diseases been better, I might have come up with something a little more amusing.

"Canadians are courteous with strangers and passersby. The uses of "please," "thank you," and "excuse me" are common."

I can't elaborate much on this one except to say, it doesn't happen here.

"It is considered extremely rude to push ahead of others in line."

While people do line up here, it's not uncommon for someone to "join" the line ahead of everyone else.  If you happen to have an acquaintance already in line, it's no problem to join them ahead of others.  Sometimes, someone sees the line, measures everyone up, and then decides they are more important and must move to the front.

One of the most aggravating instances happens while driving.  (This applies to many French men as well as local people here.)  Perhaps because there are no road rules that are enforced, people feel they can make their own.  When stuck in traffic or at a light, people begin adding lanes on either side of the actual lane and then force their way ahead of everyone else.  If you don't let them in, they yell, honk, raise their fists at you like it's your problem they have no where to go.  Perhaps, if they hadn't driven through the ditch to pass 10 cars at an intersection, they wouldn't be stuck there to begin with.

"Gestures in greeting or loud conversation generally are frowned upon."

I often find myself wondering, 'what all the yelling is about?'  In general, people speak quite loudly here and they aren't embarrassed to hold a rather private conversation, loudly, in public.  Because we live above a store, I'm often privy to these conversations in the parking lot below.  Sometimes people are having an all out argument right there in front of everyone.  They'll get quite animated, throwing their arms up, pretending to storm off only to return and yell some more and then seemingly out of no where, it just stops.  Both parties shake hands, wish each other an enjoyable day and head in their separate directions as if nothing ever happened.

While some of these cultural differences can feel incredibly frustrating, sometimes there's nothing you can do but laugh (or join them.)

**The quotes above come from, Canada destination guide, as provided through the Halliburton network.**

My Beloved Kindle

Friday 25 November 2011

I'm a reader and I need a book on the go at all times.  I learnt my lesson when living in Houston that lugging suitcases full of books back and forth when traveling is just not reasonable.

Luckily, Joe bought me a Kindle for my birthday before we moved to Africa.

And thank goodness...

There is not an English book to be bought in Port Gentil.

I go on, buy a book and it appears on my Kindle - or I connect my Kindle to a data network and do it directly from there.  Easy.

While nothing replaces the feel and smell of a 'real' book, I'm not sure what I would have done without my Kindle this year, especially in those early days in the hotel with nothing but CNN and time on my hands.

The Ugly

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Welcome to the final post in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” You’ve heard about our friends and the beautiful beaches, the horrendous roads and the outrageous costs of everything here and now you’ll hear about the nitty, gritty, ugliness of Port Gentil.

  • Public Urination – It would be an odd day if I didn’t see someone pee in the street.  I’m talking men, girls, boys and on rare occasions, women.  I know this occasionally happens at home on long road trips or in dark alleys after the bar but in Port Gentil it’s midday on Main Street.  Most of the men don’t even turn themselves away from the traffic – it’s just right out there in front of everyone and no one seems to care.  I couldn’t even count how many times I’ve exited my yard to find someone peeing on our wall.  I respond with a “C’est ma maison, ce n’est pas une toilette” but I usually just get a shrug in return.

  • Garbage, Garbage, Garbage – It’s everywhere; heaping, rotting, stinking garbage.  While garbage collection appears to happen regularly, there is often more garbage around the bin than there is within (mostly due to lack of bins.)  All of it sits and rots in the blazing heat and it smells TERRIBLE!  As you can well imagine, no one sanctions littering around here either so as people walk, they throw their bottles, carrier bags and wrappers on the ground.  Each morning our guard rakes our parking area and each day there is a mound of garbage.  Yuck.

  • Poverty – Gabon is one of the richest African countries and with a population of only 1 million its people should be thriving, but unfortunately they hardly see any of that wealth.  The further you get from the city centre, the more dire the living conditions become.  People live in shacks we wouldn’t even keep our lawn mower in.  It’s sad and it’s hard to see.

That completes my version of "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly."

Jungle Joe in Photos

Saturday 19 November 2011

Joe and his colleague, Emmanuel.

The Jungle

The Luxury Accommodation

Jungle Joe

Thursday 17 November 2011

Joe is somewhere in the Gabonese jungle.

Normally when he goes to a job, it's offshore but due to a lack of qualified engineers, he's been sent inland.  He took a 1.5 hour helicopter ride to get there and he doesn't really know where he is except for the fact that they followed the coastline South for about an hour before heading inland.

The jungle in Gabon is crazy - it is so dense and lush that you often can't see through the wall of forest.  It's also home to forest elephants, silverback gorillas and countless other snakes and bugs.  While he has yet to spot the elephants (apparently those on the rig at night have) he did come across a giant snake yesterday which he says was as thick as his leg.  The local guy he was with thought it was a viper so perhaps it's this one.

He continually reminds me that he's glad I'm not out there as he's encountered huge spiders, cockroaches the size of rats and moths that are as big as birds.  I think this will be one of those trips that he'll be happy to have done once and hopefully not again!

You know you've been in Gabon too long when...

Thursday 10 November 2011

1.  You begin to think of the bars in people's windows as decorative fixtures and you notice (and maybe even comment on) 'fancy' ones.

2.  You use the horn in your car more than your signal lights.

3.  You give someone a generous tip because they actually brought you what you ordered in a reasonable time and weren't rude about it.

4.  You walk by the man peeing in the street and hardly notice.

5.  You look for the token naked man on your drive across town.

6.  You find peanut butter in the grocery store so you text your friends to let them know it's there and then buy several for yourself.

7.  You spend more time driving on the wrong side of the road than you do on the right.

8.  It no longer surprises you that there is no money in the bank machine and no fuel at the gas station.

9.  You phone your friend on the other side of town to ask if there's any police check-stops before you head her way.

and lastly,

10.  A baby cockroach runs across your table at lunch, the waitress helps you kill it and you still stay to eat.

We're Going to MAURITIUS!

Monday 7 November 2011

Joe & I try to spread out our holidays throughout the year as it's best to take regular breaks from Gabon and the difficulties here.  We saved an extra week of Joe's vacation days just for this purpose as we knew we wouldn't be coming home for Christmas this year.  (Singapore was an added bonus!)

After our busy trips to Canada, South Africa & Singapore this year, we decided we needed something a little more relaxing to decompress from work for Joe and life in Africa for me so we decided Mauritius was the place to be.

Mauritius is to the right of Madagascar - the tiny little island that says "Port Louis."

Mauritius is a small island in the Indian ocean to the East of Madagascar.  It's known for it's luxury accommodation and rich culture as the residents come from Indian, African, French & Chinese heritage.  English is the official language however, French and Mauritian Creole are widely spoken as well.

Joe and I will spend 1 week in Mauritius taking in the sun and then we'll fly back to Johannesburg and spend a couple of days there to stock up on anything we need in Gabon.  We'll get home December 20 just in time for a Christmas in West Africa.

The Bad

Friday 4 November 2011

Here we go, “The Bad.”  There could be a whole lot of ‘Bad’ but I’m going to narrow it down to the baddest of the bad.

  • The Roads – I found when I was home this summer this was one of the most difficult things to explain.  The roads are horrendous and sometimes, I’m not sure why we call them roads.  Joe & I were discussing his best route home one day and he told me that sometimes route B was better because it wasn’t paved.  Paved roads mean sharp patches of pavement and deep, gaping potholes.  Unpaved roads mean dirt roads with holes so big they have to be driven through, not over.  These holes are filled with water 10 months of the year and one never knows how deep they are until you are in it.  I’ve had water come over my hood.  Keep in mind, I’m not talking about a couple of potholes.  There are more holes than road.

  • The Food – The food just isn’t that good here.  It really makes you realize how lucky we are to have good quality meat and vegetables in Canada.  The meat is famously tough here and the vegetables are few and far between.  The Gabonese certainly aren’t known for their farming; there are some people who have gardens and sell their produce but that can be touch and go as well, especially when you aren’t sure of the conditions it was grown in.  Most of the ‘good’ stuff is frozen but after awhile, you really crave something fresh and when you do find something to have fresh, you worry that you can't cook all of the bacteria/parasites out of it before you eat it.

  • The Price – It’s one thing that we lack quality products here but it’s another when you look at how much they cost.  Last week I made bruschetta and 4 good-sized tomatoes cost me 9000 cfa ($18.)  Everything is double, if not triple the price that we would pay at home and the quality is nothing to rave about.  I had to pay for my own flight to Libreville when going to Singapore and the round trip (1/2 hour flight) cost 255 000 cfa (over $500.)

Imported peppers - $20/kilo and if you saw them up close, you'd see wrinkly soft skin that doesn't look that fresh!

  • Isolation – Because Port Gentil is sort of an island, it’s really not easy to get anywhere.  We have to take a boat or flight to Libreville and then onward.  We can’t jump in the car and do a road trip inland.  In fact, the furthest we can go is Cape Lopez and that is maybe 20 km from our house.  The bordering countries (Cameroon, Congo, Equatorial Guinea) aren’t places that cater to tourism either so if we want to travel, we have to go quite far.  The ‘weekend away’ just isn’t an option and it makes it quite difficult and expensive for anyone to come and visit us.

  • Unreliablilty - You just can't rely on anyone or anything here, even the people you think you know.  Something breaks, you call someone to fix it and when they finally show up (days later than promised) they make a worse mess of things.  Spoken agreements (actually even written agreements) mean almost nothing and things rarely go as planned.  While it is still frustrating (see the post on our internet problems here) we have gotten used to this and are pleasantly surprised when something gets done.  Currently, the most unnerving thing is the unreliability of flights.  Sometimes you have checked in and as you line up to board the plane, they tell you it is no longer going and you need to get another ticket for another flight.  No one apologizes and no reason is ever given.

And those are the baddest of the bad when it comes to life here - at least for us.

Have I ever mentioned...

Wednesday 2 November 2011

We have really nice beaches here?


Today is All Saints' Day and a nationwide holiday.  (No Halloween though!)

Yes, while it was dipping below zero for our friends and family at home, it's reaching above 30 here.

We played a little frisbee, snorkeled, found hermit crabs and had a beer.

Yup, while you are bracing yourselves for snow, we're heading into some of the best beach weather of the year.

Christmas in Gabon anyone?

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