[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/07/26/chris.blog_web.jpg caption="As the boys are fishing, someone else in the background dumps their garbage right into the water. " width=300 height=169]
If you’ve ever considered traveling to Equatorial Guinea, you’ve probably heard about the high cost of visiting.
Yes, a basic hotel room really does cost $400-500 a night, and sometimes much more. There are no hostels with merry young backpackers hanging out at the beer garden, and no home exchange vacationers looking to trade housing from an offshore oil center with an apartment in a hipster neighborhood in Portland, Oregon.
Couldn’t I sleep on the floor of the airport? Not really—it’s not that kind of place. I’ll be sleeping on the floor of Hong Kong’s airport next week before coming home, but HKG is the Hilton of airport sleeping. If I attempted to stay overnight at SSG, I would at least be questioned, and could very well be arrested. Soft adventurer that I am, I’d rather avoid that.
Thus, when encountering such a situation, I do what I have to do. I pony up the money, all in cash because the country doesn’t accept credit cards of any kind, and head up to the dingy, one-star room. I also find the whole thing fairly ironic, because I’ve stayed in my fair share of dingy, one-star hotels—see this old post for one of my favorites—but I’m not usually paying $400 a night for them. No, most definitely not—but if you were to come to Equatorial Guinea, that’s probably what you’d have to do too.
Notes on the Rich Getting Richer
I also want to say something that will probably get me in trouble, but once in a while you should say what you really think. The thing about Equatorial Guinea, and most other African countries in similar situations, is that the people are poor not because they are meant to be poor, they like being poor, or because they’ve done anything wrong.
For the most part, the vast majority of people in places like Equatorial Guinea are poor because of a lack of opportunities, and a system of corruption that discourages savings and investment. To put it more simply, a few people have a lot of money, and most people have almost no money. None of the development, or at least very little, actually helps most of the people that live there.
Everyone I met in Malabo was nice—well, except for the hotel clerks, who were clearly under orders to extort as much money as possible from visitors. It’s not the people’s fault that government officials are stashing the cash that belongs to the country in their own overseas bank accounts. The president’s son, for example, lives in a $35 million mansion in California. By all accounts, he did not get rich selling ebooks.
This is how it works in Nigeria as well—a country that should be rich is actually very poor. Nigeria produces two million barrels of oil for export every day, but its villages and even large cities often go without electricity. The country used to rank dead last on Transparency International’s scale of global corruption. Then one year it “lost” the record of most corrupt country in the world to Bangladesh. The joke among my African friends was that Nigeria had paid off Bangladesh to take its place.
One theory calls this the “resource curse” of Africa. Countries that have oil or other natural resources, like Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, or Sudan, end up with large pockets of the population that are completely left behind. Meanwhile, countries without a lot of natural resources (Botswana is the most frequently cited) tend to do much better in terms of reducing absolute poverty and providing healthcare for their citizens.
Whether that’s true or not, I think it’s sad that corruption and exploitation are the normal patterns of business in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, I should note that my government and most other Western governments are complicit in this arrangement, because the arrangement supports everyone involved. Everyone, that is, except the people who most need the chance to create opportunities for themselves, to raise healthy families, and to make their own choices. I hope it will change but I’m not sure it will.
I also realize I’m a rich, privileged person, writing mostly to other rich, privileged people who read blogs about life planning and unconventional living. So I’m not really complaining about my $400 one-star hotel room, as much as I’d rather spend that money on something else. Some people have a car payment every month; I ride the bus so I can visit random places like Equatorial Guinea. It works out OK.
No, what makes me uncomfortable is that in this case, none or very little of this money seems to be doing much good for people who need it. Some people are very rich, but most are very poor. Maybe the oil workers (and me) are funding the president’s son in his California mansion. Since there’s no transparency and few checks and balances, no one really knows for sure.
Anyway, after visiting Equatorial Guinea I went to its next-door neighbor Cameroon, a fun and lively place. I don’t know a lot about Cameroon, but having lived for some time in similar countries (especially Benin), I found it joyful and lively.
It was also quite hot, but that comes with the territory. I went for a long run that became a short run when I had to stop after 25 minutes in the heat. But it was a fun place nonetheless, and it left me with a more hopeful feeling than I had across the way in Equatorial Guinea.
That’s how I see it from my distorted, privileged traveler’s perspective. I know there are a lot of other active travelers among our group, as well as many people who live in countries hindered by corruption, so feel free to share your own views if you’d like.
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