So, it's been already a week since we went Fougamouing, and I still haven't told you how the trip went. Let me now fill in this huge information gap by telling you the story of the lazy receptionist, talkative guide, spirits of the forest and seven thousand mosquitoes, all of whom we met in Fougamou. Brace yourselves, it's going to be long!
Hôtel Ngounié must be Eshira for Hotel Mosquito
A week before our departure, we booked a double room (I even have a room with a bed for three, if you're interested!) at the Hôtel Ngounié, apparently the best (and only) hotel in the ville. Upon informing the receptionist that we'd made a reservation, we were confronted with a high-pitched prolonged Gabonese ooooooh!, which usually means that you're asking for the impossible. She told us that as we hadn't made our booking with her, she did not know about it. However, she would make the effort of finding us a room. And she did. Of course, it had no light in the bathroom, the shower consisted of a hose, it smelled horribly of anti-mosquito spray and it cost thirty euro, but what do you expect if you arrive without reservation?
Luckily, we always travel with a mosquito net, otherwise we would've been in trouble, as the generously used mosquito spray was indeed smelly but not very effective, and the place was swarming with bloodthirsty buzzing crowd. We were of course asked to give our mosquito net to the receptionist, for, well, she had none. We politely refused and it proved to be the right decision, as in the morning we found several mosquitoes literally stuck in the net. I'd never seen such determination.
Les génies de la fôret
We hired two locals to take us hiking in the forest, and, before setting off, we even visited the house of one of them. It was a simple wooden hut, darkish, full of kids and traditional musical instruments. Neighbours came by to look at us or even boldly take pictures with their mobiles. We began our hike by going down to the river and listening to the story of Fougamou waterfalls. The guide didn't even need much encouragement, and, as soon as we left the village, he began his tale in a loud, clear voice:
- The waterfalls of Sindara are the wife. The waterfalls of Fougamou are the husband. We are all their children. In the forest, there are spirits. They are the spirits of the forest (génies de la fôret) and they are good. They help you. If your machete gets broken, you take it down to the river, you ask the spirits for help, and in the morning your machete will be as good as new. But you must respect the spirits.Better safe than sorry
- What happens if you don't respect them?
- A long long time ago, there was a couple who decided to catch the spirits and make them work for nobody but the two of them. They took a broken hammer to the river. The man hid in the tree and the woman on the river bank. They waited. When the spirits came, they saw the man and the woman, and got very angry. They were disappointed with their greed, and they changed them into huge termite mounds, which are still visible, one on the tree, the other on the river bank.
- When did it happen?
- A long time ago. But it is true. There is also a more recent story. Some years ago, Yugoslavians came to Fougamou to build a dam. They did not ask the spirits for permission and they did not even present themselves. One day, they wanted to cross the river by boat, and seven people drowned. This was the spirits' revenge for their disrespect. The dam was never built.
...was exactly what we thought and were glad to find out that we weren't going to make the same mistake as the unlucky Yugoslavians. Accompanied by the right people, we were going to do things as they should be done. As we reached the river bank, we stopped and were informed that we were now going to take part in a special ceremony, in which the spirits would be let know who we were and that we came in peace. Thus we would be given protection from diseases (no more worrying about malaria!) and a guarantee that our trip would be safe. Nice!
The guide-shaman-storyteller opened his magic bag, from which he took out seven special leaves. On six of them he put: pink candy, honey, a piece of banana, sawdust from a magic box (the perfume of spirits) and our personal sacrifice: a piece of a muesli bar. On the seventh leaf he placed five bananas. We were told that these leaves are like open palms and are used for sacrifice because they say I'm sorry. Having distributed all the treats, the man lit the Okoume tree resin in the middle of the spread, and he put some calcium next to it. The preparation finished, he practiced pronouncing our names, and then sang-prayed-shouted in Eshira, ringing a small bell while he did so. Afterwards, we were all given a banana, of which we had to throw a piece into the river (for the river spirits) and another piece on the forest ground (for the forest spirits). The rest we were allowed to consume, which was good news, as we were getting hungry. Occupied with my banana, I hardly noticed that the man had put a little red and white feather on his forehead, and started chewing on the perfume-sawdust. Before I could react, he grabbed my T-shirt and spat onto my chest and neck, which made it very difficult to remain serious. However, we were now sporting the spirit perfume and were thus safe to wonder further into the forest. The Yugoslavians had no idea what they'd missed!
No crevettes for us!
After the ceremony and a tricky jumping from one stone to another on the river bank, we arrived at a lovely place, where the villagers went fishing for river prawns. We met a girl and a little boy fishing with a simple rod (a stick and fishing line, which proved to be extremely efficient), and we joined them for the crevette catching. It was amazing to see them catch dozens of prawns with their hands, as if it were the simplest thing on Earth. Later on, Jandro, who tried to help, found out that it wasn't as easy as it seemed. As a result, the villagers were in for a lovely dinner and I must say we were rather jealous!
On our way back, we were given several important tips on how to survive in the jungle. My favourite one is about snake bites. Apparently, when bitten by one of the several venomous snakes of Gabon, you must act quickly. You will have no time to get to the hospital but do not despair! Here's what needs to be done: you take some of the liquid from your ear (!), which is also poison, and which can kill a man in no more and no less than five minutes, and you put it on the bite. One poison will neutralise the other, and you can go back to your plantation. To be on the safe side, Jandro and I decided unanimously not to clean our ears the night before a jungle trip.
We were also offered a lot of advice on hunting in general, and specifically on how to catch the huge walking sum of money in the form of an elephant (which is of course illegal in Gabon). I will spare you the cruel details of setting a trap and letting the poor animal starve to death. Let me just tell you that for one kilo of ivory a villager is paid 500 000 CFA, which amounts to 750 euro.
Even though we only hung out with the villagers for one day, we could observe a lot of things about their lives. And I think this was the most interesting part of this experience: we saw the village houses from the inside, we could ask all our silly questions, we went fishing, we were introduced to the génies de la fôret... We've been in Gabon for more than a year and we constantly discover new things. Don't you think it's fascinating?
More pictures from Fougamou here and here.