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MALABO — In Equatorial Guinea, snake and wild rat feature among the culinary delicacies and empty six-lane highways contrast with dusty townships.
The only Spanish-speaking country in Africa, Equatorial Guinea is co-hosting the African Nations Cup with Gabon, allowing a rare glimpse into one of the continent’s most secretive nations.
Usually averse to publicity, the quirky country comprised of two parts — a small region on the African continent and Bioko island in the Gulf of Guinea — has found itself hosting dozens of foreign journalists and a few hundred visiting supporters.
The first surprise on arrival in Malabo is that, unlike any other country in sub-Saharan Africa, the visitor is not swamped by taxi touts, instead having to hunt for the vehicles which are hidden in a dark corner of the car park with the driver invariably asleep in the front seat.
The drive into town is along a sparkling new, fully-lit six-lane highway, with almost no traffic apart from a broken-down taxi which has been abandoned in the fast lane.
Shiny new apartment blocks and office buildings line the road.
However, turning down a side-street quickly leads to typically African townships, where residents have to collect water from communal standpipes and sanitation is rudimentary.
More developed neighbourhoods have an almost Caribbean feel, with simple bars pumping out local music.
The only national television station broadcasts an eclectic mix of cartoons, John Wayne films dubbed into Spanish, Mexican soap operas, Soviet-style news bulletins and hours of music videos.
A typical news programme featured a 10-minute report on the delivery of a new vehicle scanner for the government, new uniforms for the crew of a local airline and endless footage of politicians shaking hands with each other and signing documents.
“Dogtanian”, a classic 1980s cartoon, features heavily on the schedule.
There is no weather forecast, although if there was it would be the same every day... hot and muggy.
Although Malabo is on a tropical island, the sea is rarely glimpsed with no seafront road and few public beaches.
Eating locally is cheap, with a plate of grilled chicken and plantains costing 1000 CFA francs (R16, $2) at a modest local eatery, while uninspiring buffets cost more than 10-times as much in European chain hotels.
Although good value, venturing into local establishments can produce surprises.
“Come out here and have a look at this,” said the proprietress of one in the decaying old centre of Malabo, proudly displaying a large piece of snake meat kept in a paper bag.
It looked rather like a chunk of tuna fish, but the blue and yellow scaly skin gave away its true identity.
Snake, along with wild rat and lizard, is popular. Snake is best when cooked in sauce while the rat lends itself to grilling, according to local gourmets.
West African-style pepper stews can be found but are eaten with French bread rather than fufu, the thick paste made with pounded yam found in the rest of the region.
The Spanish colonial legacy means that coffee is good and chorizo makes frequent appearances.
Getting around involves running the gauntlet of collective taxis with fixed routes.
The process is to flag one down, tell the driver where you are going and wait while he mulls it over, a process which invariably causes the car to block the road and leads to a cacophony of hooting.
If he is heading roughly in the right direction, you get in, if not you try again.
Trips can involve long detours depending on where other passengers are heading and the fare, either 500 or 1000 CFA francs, depends largely on the whim of what the driver considers to be a “long” or “short” trip.
Arguing that the trip was only “long” because the driver took a detour for his other passengers rarely brings success.
Those who are tempted by the impressive modern bus shelters along some of the city’s new highways will find themselves in for a long wait as no buses actually run.
The general impression is that there is less poverty and crime than in neighbouring countries, although people are considerably more reserved and seem wary, even distrustful, of foreigners.
“It’s a very relaxed place. People are poor but nobody is starving,” said David Alvarez, a Spain-raised member of the national team.
“You can walk down the street at ten o’clock in the evening and nothing will happen.”