My friend, Melissa, recently visited Gabon in Central Africa for three months. She had a really positive experience and wanted to share it on my blog. I need to also mention she’s a Canadian-born Chinese so imagine what it is like to stick out like a sore thumb! (I know what that feels like too well).
I have condensed part of the interview for this blog. For the full version, you can view it on Melissa’s blog here.
To start out, can you give a background of what you were doing there?
My friend Grace from when I worked at the art centre in Toronto was from Gabon and originally we thought it would be fun to open an art centre like that in her hometown. But then the idea sort of changed for her and she had this idea to do this bigger social enterprise. So when I was there we did a pilot art program and I also helped her do some graphic work for the social enterprise she wanted to launch.
How long did you go for?
3 months is the maximum you can go for on a tourist visa as a Canadian.
How did you get a visa to go to Gabon?
You do an E-visa online where you give all your information and a copy of your passport. The only tricky part is that they say they will issue your E-visa within 72 hours but in reality, it ended up being a week for me. I would advise doing your E-visa as early as possible, as soon as you book your ticket. Definitely, do not expect to get the E-visa within 72 hours.
After you get the E-visa you print it out and show it at the airports during your flight and when you arrive they will take it and print out the actual visa to stick in your passport. It’s worth it to note that you are supposed to carry your passport, not a copy, with you at all times in Gabon as a form of identification. They are really strict about this.
However, if you don’t want to carry your passport all the time you can get a copy of your passport and visa notarized at City Hall and they will accept a notarized copy as an official ID. Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly how it’s done because my friend helped me with that.
How much was the visa?
It was 90 Euros. Actually I think it was 85 Euros but when I got to the airport I had 90 Euros and they didn’t have change for me. I was already kind of late and I didn’t want my friend to keep waiting so I just let them keep the 5 Euros. When I told my friend later she got mad because that shouldn’t be happening, which is true. Until then, bring exact fare for your visa.
The other visa is for 6-months with multiple entry, but it’s 200 Euros. Before the trip I decided I wasn’t going to go anywhere else, but later on regretted it. You learn about how cool the neighbouring countries are and that I could have gone to XYZ. It would have been nice to have the option.
Did you have to take any special vaccines?
Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A/B and Typhoid shots. I was taking doxycycline for malaria prevention for the three months. You take it daily. I didn’t have any side effects from it besides feeling nauseous if I didn’t take it with food. I brought a prescription of ciprofloxacine in case too but never had to use it because I was really careful about food.
What about bugs? Did you get bitten a lot outside?
I brought a lot of bug spray that I didn’t end up using. If you wear long clothes it’s usually enough to keep mosquitos from biting and you get used to mosquito bites all the time anyway. I brought some white pine salve to use for insect bites and it made a huge difference. White pine has antiseptic properties and can help draw out pain. I would highly recommend bringing some to anywhere you expect insect bites, like for camping.
In my malaria-paranoia I actually brought all light-coloured clothing which probably helped deter mosquitos but I looked like I was going to safari everyday. We were in the city and in general everyone dresses very stylish in jeans and what not so I wish I brought my regular everyday clothes.
What was it like being the only Asian in the area? Did you get all the attention?
There are a lot of Asians right now going to Gabon for work. There were these five guys from Malaysia in front of me at the airport visa counter coming to Gabon for work.
The majority of them are likely working on projects that China had in the area. My friend was saying almost all the infrastructure projects right now in the country are done by Chinese companies and there are also many plantation projects in rural areas. For these contracts, they bring their own people to do it. Weird neocolonialism stuff.
What was a funny encounter you had (if you had one) with the Chinese?
Once when we were walking on the big Route Nationale 1 that is just outside my friend’s street there was a giant truck driven by this Chinese man and he looked at me and I looked at him. Then I waved at him and he waved back. I thought that was hilarious.
What was your overall experience?
It was great. Everyone was really relaxed. Everyone is super friendly.
In general, people are excited you are there and want to hear about you. I would go around with my friend when she had to meet people or visit her family. When I would talk to people they would ask, When did you move here? How long have you been living here? They thought I lived in Gabon which I thought was so strange. I would have to tell them that I was just visiting.
Later my friend explained to me it’s because you’re in these neighbourhoods tourists don’t go to. That’s why they think I’m from there. I think that’s another reason why people are so interested in talking to you because you’re somewhere they can meet you. You’re not just somewhere tourists or expats hang out and they don’t go to those places.
What was your favourite part of the experience?
I really liked working with the kids. We did these rad art programs with them and they liked making art and they were so good at drawing. We ended up working with this NGO Micone that Grace had been in touch with since the year before. They were really cool. The woman running the place was really cool.
Was there a time you felt targeted for looking different?
So this one time we were going to where we were doing the art program and the cab driver told us its extra money if you want to go all the way into the neighbourhood. Sometimes we just stopped outside the main roadway and walked into the neighbourhood itself. He was asking for a lot more. We told him that’s too much. He said she, referring to me as a foreigner, will have that money. We thought he was being so mean. And he’s not wrong. He was just being a business person, but still I didn’t appreciate that.
I don’t know if I felt targeted. I mean its bound to happen because you look so different. I’m surprised it didn’t happen more.
What about the men? Did you get some weird stares on the streets?
If you’re a woman and don’t look local you will definitely get noticed and get asked out a lot. It was mostly kind of funny but also annoying. The funny ones were if they just blew kisses and annoying was if they asked for my number – persistently. There were gross comments too, but I simply didn’t understand what they were saying. I only knew because my friend would get disgusted [laughs]. That was a turning point in my French comprehension improving… when one day I understood that someone shouted they wanted me to be their wife. That was pretty exciting… the French understanding part.
For someone who wants to visit, what is a piece of advice would you give?
I wish I had brought a mosquito net tent. The room I stayed in was pretty big so if there was even one mosquito it would keep me awake all night. Mosquito nets need to be rigged in a room, but with a tent it can be freestanding. A tent on top of your bed might look ridiculous but then at least you get to sleep well!
Is there anything you would do differently?
I wish I didn’t bring any clothes or shoes because you can buy them there relatively cheap. It is unreal, like all the clothes that thrift stores don’t sell get shipped to Africa. Instead, I wish I brought a lot of art supplies. Pencils and crayons aren’t that pricey, but paint is still really expensive. So instead of bringing clothes I should have just brought paint for doing art with kids.
What impression do you want to leave with this interview?
I really wanted to come back and tell others I had such a positive experience. The continent is often portrayed so negatively. I wanted to come back and dispel this belief that this is a place that is always at war or always impoverish. Parts of those statements are true but just in the same sense that parts of negative statements of any country are true. I kind of just wanted all my Chinese family to be less racist [laughs].
I just think that a way to be less… not just racist… to be less prejudice of people outside of your range is to become friends with those people. My grandma isn’t going to befriend an African person at her age but you can be a link. It’s funny as soon as I came back I did have interactions in Canada where people asked me about my trip and where I visited in Africa. The perception that often comes up is was it dangerous?
How would you sum up your experience there?
It was awesome. I got to do my favourite things. Teach art, paint a mural and it was warm. I feel really lucky.
Bradt Travel Guides – Gabon
This is a good primer. My father bought it for me and Grace laughed when I told her I was reading it, which is probably the right reaction. However, it does have some helpful overview of the country’s history and development that was good to know when there.
*Disclaimer: This is an affiliate link, meaning if you choose to purchase, I will receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you.
I love this blog I think it’s so funny and real. It documents this French couple’s adventures since living in Gabon since late 2014. They do all these tourist-y things and photograph everything which makes it such a valuable resource for tourists/travellers. Again, gives a good perspective as visiting as foreigners.