Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I've been here many times over the years. Its been fascinating to see its evolution and to get to know people here and how they think. Its curious, they see themselves as capitalists, but not democrats. The former is hugely important, the latter not much to them really. So long as there is a rule of law, and at least a pretence of freedom of opportunity, they feel free. Isn't that what really matters in the end?

I remember back in the early nineties, this felt like a communist city. Large grey buildings, not much different one from the other. Streets full of bicycles, and the sight of a tall white foriegner something that would evoke double takes on the street.

Now it has a completely different feel. The streets are full of cars. Bicycles have almost completely disappeared. Even the little motor Rikshaw has essentially vanished, though a few are still about.

Where once there were either tangled streets of old old buildings, or row upon row of Stalinist concrete blocks, now there is every shape of modern building. They are developing a unique style of modern architecture, which evokes the old vernacular. Its interesting. There are also some striking examples of far out modern styles. One just going up has two twisted spires topped by a box. All in glass and steel, its going to be gorgeous, though I can only hope the engineers got the box on the top rigtht!

Its a city in the middle of a huge construction boom. What is odd is many buildings are occupied, but still have bits uncomplete. Like the builders got bored and left, or the owners ran out of money. Also, though the streets are scrupulously clean (litter is not allowed), maintenance seems an afterthought. Some completely new pedestrian pavements with fresh paving stones have bits missing, or are already sunk in subsidance. New buildings of glass and steel desprately need a wash and bits are falling off. I have no doubt they'll get this right at some point, but they have to watch that in the rush to get new things built, the bits already built don't fall appart.

The city has a real bustle to it. Streets thronged with people. Shops with every type of consumer good are everywhere. You can buy the latest luxury item or its cheap knock off, sometimes in the same store.

Its a city also getting more used to foriegners. I've been here at times when my walking down the street would cause people to stop talking and look. Where I've felt extremely uncomfortable and unwelcome. That is gone, though I still noticed heads turn to follow me as I walk. They are more used to foreigners, but that doesn't mean we're common here. I still spent time walking down streets with hundreds of people, and I'm the only European face.

The politics are also self evident. In London, a countries embassy says a lot about the country of origin. Where it is, and how big it is, has much to do with the size and wealth of its owner. Here, it can be the exact opposite. I walked down Embassy row here, something I often like doing. Here Gabon has a massive granite building, and the US a modest rather boring modern one.

Like New York, its a city I love visiting, but I'm not sure I'd want to live here. Still, while I am here, I intend to enjoy it.


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