Expatriate vs Tourist

11 04 2012

I’ve always found great value in traveling — exploring, learning, experiencing different cultures.  There’s nothing quite like stepping outside your box.  Traveling lets you glimpse into a different world.  You get a short stint (be it a day, a week or a month) in a foreign place and you can admire it for what you see.  Typically, you see the best of a country and if you do encounter the worst, it sucks, but you move on. After all, you want to appreciate it, the good and the bad, because before long, you’ll be back in your regular life.

Herein lies the major difference between an expat and a tourist; a tourist leaves and an expat stays.  Things that seem cool and different as a tourist become a fear or a frustration for the expat.  It’s not something they’ll take a picture of and move on, it’s something they’ll face day to day whether they want to or not.  Tourists will choke down less than desirable food knowing that in a few weeks they’ll be back to ‘real’ food whereas the expat has to find a way to make the less desirable, desirable.  Those weird smells – yup, you smell them every time you step out your door.  The particularly funny stories where you are trying to ask something in a foreign language and no one understands you, that is now your normal morning routine.  It can be incredibly tiresome.

However, there are upsides.  You may have to grumble through the difficulties but you also get to reap the positives; that beautiful beach is now part of your home and you can visit it every, single day if you want.  You also get to delve into a culture much deeper than a tourist sees on their short stay in the country.  You begin understand the inner workings of the place and you learn just how complicated a society can be.  You see the good and the bad and create a much fuller and deeper understanding of the culture you’re living in.

It really is quite rewarding.  Every once in awhile I look out my window and think, “I live in Africa.  Oh my god, that is so cool.”  Of course, there are occasions where I think, “Where the hell am I and how did I get here?” too, but I feel like I’ve grown so much in the last couple of years and I’ve learned more than I ever would have imagined.  Joe & I have talked about what a tourist’s impression of Gabon might be – beautiful beaches, jungles, exotic, tropical, poor, dirty, culturally interesting, all of which, it is – but I’m glad we got to delve a little deeper, even if it wasn’t so pleasant all of the time.





Smooching

27 03 2012

I’ve noticed a lot of really loud ‘smooching’ sounds around town lately.

For example, every morning we walk by a road construction crew and as we pass there is inevitably several loud SMOOCH sounds from the working men.  I notice it if I park outside of the grocery store parking lot as there’s a new apartment going up and generally a lot of men around and even as I stood on the street waiting for a friend to pick me up, taxis slowed and men SMOOCHed out the open window.

Annoyed, I brought it up to Joe a few months back and he said one of his local colleagues SMOOCHed him on the platform, apparently to get his attention.  It bothered him as well.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that a SMOOCH must be the equivalent to the whistle in North America (and perhaps elsewhere.)  You can use a loud whistle to get someone, or a group’s, attention or the whistle we all know if you want to express that someone is good-lookin.

I tend to find it bothersome and not at all flattering (especially when I’m dripping in sweat at 8 am) – as do most of my friends.

Men, can’t you think of a more pleasant way to get women’s attention?





The Vacuum

22 02 2012

Or “l’aspirateur” as the French call it.

(Photo Credit via)

The vacuum is a fairly common appliance in the North American household but not in the typical African household (along with clean running water and electricity so I suppose it makes sense.)  I pulled it out when training my menagère as sweeping can be so arduous not to mention all the little bits that get left between the cracks of our wooden floors.  She looked at it with horror and terror in her eyes.

I quickly pulled out the cord, put everything together, turned it on and did a brief demonstration before abruptly handing it over to her to give it a whirl.  She abruptly handed it back to me and asked me to show her again, this time a bit slower.  After another orientation with the vacuum, she decided she was ready to give it a try although she did ask me to stay close and watch her for a bit just to make sure everything went alright.  I hadn’t even thought how foreign this might be to her.

I watched her that first morning slowly and timidly pushing the vacuum around wondering if she’d ever feel comfortable using it or if it would go back in the cupboard never to be touched again.  Each week she pulled it out and after some practise, she was quick and confident.

Last week she went on maternity leave but beforehand she gave her replacement a tour of the house and a brief rundown as to how she organised her week.  When she got to the vacuum, she pointed at it, giggled a bit and told me I’d have to give another demonstration.  Round 2 went a bit better but I’m sure they both think we’re crazy for lugging around this big, noisy thing when there’s a broom just around the corner.

 





Bon/Bonne

24 01 2012

The French have a lot of little sayings using ‘bon’ or ‘bonne,’ both of which mean good.

Bon arrivé (welcoming after travel)

Bon voyage (have a safe/good trip)

Bonjour (hello)

Bon courage (hang in there)

Bon chance (good luck)

Bonne journée (have a good day)

Bon après-midi (have a good afternoon)

Bonne nuit (good night)

Bonsoir (good evening)

Bonne soirée (have a good evening)

There are others too.  I used to think it was a bit excessive.  It seemed like every time I did something, someone was wishing a ‘Bon’ this and a “Bonne” that, however now I catch myself wishing I could use them in English.  They’re so short and convenient and when I try to use the English equivalent it just doesn’t seem to translate or fit the situation as well.  Funny how that happens.  I guess it’s a sign that I’m becoming more and more accustomed to speaking mostly in French.





Why You NEED to Visit South Africa

20 01 2012

Every time Joe and I visit South Africa, we fall more and more in love with it.  (Read about it here, here, here & here.)  Yes, it certainly has it’s issues and I know there would be downfalls to living there full time however, it is a fabulous place to visit and this is why…

  1. Kruger Park.  One of the most famous safari destinations in the world and it does not disappoint.  If you want the Africa experience that you see in the movies, this is the place to go.  Animals are abundant as are safari lodges ranging from rustic to ultra luxurious.
  2.  The People.  From our experiences, South Africans are so kind and welcoming.  They have had such a vibrant and at times, terrible history but their resilience is inspiring.
  3. There is something for everybody.  Obviously, the animal lover will be in paradise but there’s the wine country to drive through, the posh city life in Cape Town, cage diving with sharks for the adventurers, you can see life in townships first hand and learn about South Africa’s rich and turbulent history.
  4. It’s Beautiful.  The Cape of Good Hope and up the coastline, Table Mountain, beautiful beaches, wine country and many more sites to take your breath away.
  5. The Food.  Delicious.  Fabulous meat, fantastic home grown produce and more restaurants than you could ever want.  To top it all off, it’s not that expensive!  Joe & I constantly revel at the bill wondering how we got all that great food for such a good price.
  6. VAT Refund.  In South Africa if you are a tourist you get all tax money back from your purchases.  Save your receipts and research how it works (it is a bit of a process and you must prepare ahead of time) but you get money back in your pocket at the airport when you leave the country.  Seriously, who else does that?

I know it’s a bit of a trek for those of you residing in North America but I promise you, you will not be disappointed.  Save your money, book your trip, and if you feel so inclined, invite us!





Airport Grievances

21 12 2011

Nothing like going on vacation to remind you what a nightmare travel in Gabon can be.  It doesn’t seem to matter when we travel, how prepared we are or how much we’ve paid for the tickets, we will have problems.

The Port Gentil airport has been working on a new runway in hopes that Air France will begin direct flights here instead of through Libreville.  This started months ago and they had hopes to be finished in January but of course, they are behind schedule.  Sunday night the government announced they were going to close the airport from 6 pm – 6 am commencing immediately.  Most international flights arrive in LBV 5:30 pm and after so this means everyone who is arriving must now find accommodation for the night.  Did I mention, this is going to continue for at least 2 months?  (Luckily, Joe’s company re-arranged everything for us while we were in the air so we didn’t have to do it when we arrived.)

Air travel in Africa is something very different from the orderly and routine travel we’re used to in North America.  It can be incredibly aggravating and I could probably write grievances from now until the new year arrives but I’ll pick the worst.

  • Regional travel in Gabon is a nightmare.  On average, I’d say 30% of flights are cancelled.  This is almost never done ahead of time.  Often, you are at the airport and checking in when someone comes to notify you that the flight is no longer going.  Sometimes, they don’t even refund your ticket.  There are weeks where things are pretty stable and then there are weeks where the majority of flights don’t go.  Of those that do fly, 95% are not on time.
  • We’re used to checking ourselves in to the flight and showing our passports to verify our identity.  Here, anyone can check you in.  Often, you have 1 man ahead of you in the line and he makes several trips unloading dozens of bags in front of you.  The 1 man in front is actually checking in 6 different people with multiple bags.  It’s ridiculous and it slows things down incredibly.  The attendants complain, we complain but no one ever puts a stop to it.
  • There aren’t many laws here that are enforced so many people just don’t understand how to follow the rules.  When traveling internationally either to Gabon or from Gabon, a lot of passengers completely disregard the carry-on baggage allowance.  People show up at the gate with 4 giant bags and get angry when they are told they have to check 3 of them.  It also means that you have to make a mad rush to board just to ensure you have room for your one allotted bag because often the overhead storage is full before 1/3 of the plane is boarded.
  • For some reason, someone decided that all large flights coming from South Africa, Germany and France should depart and arrive within 10 minutes of each other.  This is never compensated for in terms of immigration and customs.  Undoubtedly, there are hundreds of people lined up and only 2 immigration workers stamping passports.  Often times, one of those 2 immigration workers decide they need a coffee break just as you make your way to the front and no one replaces him/her leaving you to return to the back of a now, much longer line.
  • The regional airlines have conveniently made their baggage weight a few kilograms lower than all other airlines.  (A clever money making strategy for them, but annoying for us.)  We are almost always overweight on the inter-Gabon flights so after you’ve finally fought your way to the front of the check-in line, you are told that you now have to find the ticketing counter, pay your excess baggage costs and return to the line to present the receipt to get your boarding ticket.  Just when you couldn’t stand that line a second longer, you have to go back.

I’m not even mentioning that much of this occurs without air conditioning in 30 degree heat.

Flying from Canada, South Africa & Europe, even with their problems, is like a breath of fresh air after Gabon.

I know I’ve been a bit absent from the blog but that is because Joe & I were enjoying a fabulous vacation in Mauritius.  We’re now back in POG and as soon as I get the rest of the photos uploaded, I’ll post about the trip!





Cultural Differences

30 11 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 http://www.internationalrelocationcenter.com, Canada destination guide, as provided through the Halliburton network.**