Flight to Malabo, Bioko, Equatorial Guinea
As the days counted down to my flight I was super excited. It didn’t feel like I was leaving for a whole other continent. It wasn’t until the day of the flight, did fear and nervousness hit me. In my mind I was thinking “What if I forget something?, What if I get into trouble?, What if I lose something?, Am I going to hate being abroad?, What happens if that happens?, etc”. Instead of voicing my concerns I decided to freak out about a little yellow tube of Burt’s Bees lip balm. I made it my mission to find that tube of lip balm because I told myself that the trip would be a disaster if I didn’t.
I found that lip balm right as it was time to leave for the airport. I got into my Uber and headed to the airport, nervous. Fidgeting in my seat and playing with my nails while giving out multiple loud sighs. Everything from there on went normally. I got on my flight to Frankfurt, Germany, successfully found the other students from Drexel and we got onto our connected flight to Malabo together. The only qualm I had about the flight was that they fed us way too many times. I felt like cattle being fattened up for slaughter. Otherwise the trip was great. My travel pillow saved my life. I don’t know what I would’ve done without it.
As soon as I stepped out from the plane door to the bridge, a wave of hot and humid air hit me in the face like a wall. I thought “Wow! I’m really here!” Mackenzie, our resident advisor, met us at the airport. We stuffed all our things into the car and off we went. This trip seemed very intimidating, but as I got closer and closer to my final destination my worries went away.
After getting a few days to settle in, it was off to Moaba Camp. We drove from Malabo to Ureka and hiked along the beach into the beach with our hiking packs for 45 minutes. I’m extremely unathletic, but this was a pretty easy hike. When we arrived, we met Juan Cruz, the camp manager and all the volunteer researchers: Madeline, Kelly, Chris, Drew, and Savannah. Afterwards we took a tour of the Moaba Camp. This camp is really cool! We had a waterfall as a shower, cooks that made our meals, and pit bathrooms. Everyone lived in a tent, surrounded by the beach on one side and the jungle on the other. One thing I quickly found out was that insects love biting your legs, especially your ankles. A piece of advice for anyone that will go on this trip is that make sure to at least wear longer socks when you’re out at night in the jungle.
Since this was a research camp, we had the opportunity to participate in ongoing research and data collection of sea turtles, butterflies, and primates. The first thing we did was go on a morning turtle walk looking for sign of turtles nesting. It gave us a taste of what we were about to do later that night. Around 9:30 pm Juan Cruz and Madeline took us out to the beach armed with our head lamps. It was so dark outside that Alexis, Sofia, and I ended up holding hands all night. After walking for a little bit, BAM! I saw my first wild sea turtle! She was a Leatherback at least 7 feet tall and massive. We were able to get super close to her as she was digging a nest. It was amazing! For each sea turtle we spotted we had to measure the length and width of the carapace, distance the nest was from vegetation, use a scanner to detect old GPS trackers, and then Juan Cruz and Madeline would tag them. The census lasted 4 hours and we got to see several laying their eggs. Who needs sleep when you could be witnessing and interacting with these majestic creatures.
Next was handling and preserving butterfly specimens from the butterfly trap. Handling the butterflies was a scary task because they have such delicate wings that a slight movement could rip their wings. Then we went back to camp to practice identifying butterflies. As a group we were given 5 specimens which were all Bicyclus and had to identify them as a group. We used a photo identification book to identify the species of the butterflies. It was hard because many of them had the same coloration, patterns, eye spots, and size. Eventually we came up with our answers. Chris checked the answers and got 3/5 correct and 2/5 were close. It was a really fun activity to do.
Finally, we got to participate in primate censuses. I only did the 1km trail, but it took about 3hrs to complete while the others did 2K’s. Alexis did a 4K! We had to move very slowly, and it was hard to see any monkeys. They were always far away and near the top of trees. The most I saw was a tail and an arm. They often knew we were around even though we moved around slowly and quietly, so they would jump away. However, after completing more censuses in other areas on the island, I got better at spotting monkeys so don’t feel discouraged if you’re in the same situation.
Gran Caldera Trip
The Gran Caldera was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It was the combination of my fear of heights and the lack of confidence in my physical ability that almost made me miss out on this opportunity of a lifetime. By the end I conquered my fear and is one of my greatest accomplishments. First let’s back up to the beginning.
All these town and cities won’t make sense to you right now, but once you live there you will get a better understanding. This was a ten day trip and was broken down into parts so that everyone wouldn’t be exhausted. There was a lot of preparation work as well in order to get ready for this trip mainly by BBPP staff and our teachers. Our trip began with a car ride to the Moaba and continued with a 4-5 hour hike to Moraka Playa. This was an extremely hard hike for me. I had never had to carry my own backpack of 50 pounds while hiking on rough terrain for such a long time. Luckily there were a bunch of porters that carried most of the groups food, supplies, and other things. I don’t know what we would’ve done without them. The hike took a toll on my knees, but we did make it safely to camp. We spent 2.5 days here conducting monkey and bird censuses.
After continuous physical activity, knee pain, and the impending hike up the Caldera I had a mental breakdown. Everyone was extremely understanding and let me rest. I just couldn’t take all the stress and it was healthy for me to let that stress out. My teacher talked to me about how she could help and is there anything they could do to help. She even suggested that I could go back to the city and miss the hike up the Caldera. I told her I only needed some alone time and I would be fine. With some quiet time, I was back to my normal self and was ready for the hike.
I was definitely still scared, but I needed to conquer my fears. There would be greater obstacles in my life, and I told myself if I can’t do this what I am going to do in the future, run away? Our teachers decided that if we didn’t want to carry our hiking pack, we could have it carried for us by a porter. This made the hike a lot easier for me. It took my group 9 hours to hike up the mountain and then down the mountain wall to get to Hormegias Camp. Even though it took so long to hike, the most challenging part was hiking down the Caldera wall. It was almost a straight drop from the highest part of the mountain and that alone took an hour. There was nothing to support us and the whole time we had to grab onto tree roots to help us on the way down to avoid falling. Eventually, we reached the bottom and got to Hormegias Camp.
Camping at Hormegias was similar to Moaba except the weather was much cooler and there is no sand. The nights got cold, but I brought a light sweater, so I was fine. Hormegias Camp is also in the middle of the reserve so there is virtually no one else but our big group. We continued monkey and bird census here. The animals here were extremely cautious since they were not used to humans and the only humans they have encountered were hunters. After staying for four days, we all hiked back to Moaba and a boat took us to Luba.
Looking back at this experience, it wasn’t as scary as I first thought. Even though it was mostly a physical obstacle, it really taught me that some things in life may seem scary, but you will never know until you face it. Completing this Gran Caldera trip really gave me a boost of confidence in my every day life because I think back to the time, I did this awesome thing and that gives me confidence in trying new experiences.
After the Gran Caldera trip, we were finished with camping and it was time to go back to civilization. Half of the weeks were spent in Malabo and the other half in Moka, we alternated for the rest our time abroad. Internet was not very good in either houses, but it is enough to get by for school work. It is much harder to contact love ones at home since the connection was never really great. I would often wake up at 3-4 am, Bioko time, to talk with people back home.
Malabo is crowded and full of places to go just like any city. The weather is always hot and humid, but you get used to it. In Malabo, the DSA students share a room and there is a kitchen if anyone wants to cook which does happen a lot. The house is also an office space for BBPP to work in, so there are constantly people coming in and out. We also have a guard and his family staying at the house. His two children: Coniba and Salimata, are the cutest kids ever and very smart. They aren’t native to Equatorial Guinea (EG), but they have been in EG for a long time. His wife makes the best food I have ever had! The two things she always makes is chicken and cabbage peanut stew and jollof rice with a spicy chicken and onion stew (I don’t know the names of these dishes. Sorry!). There’s always plantains, salad, and fruit as well. For fun we went into the city to try different foods and visited American affiliated organizations.
Moka on the other hand is located at a higher elevation with cool weather around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s surrounded by agriculture and forest with a few small towns close by the house. Moka was my favorite because of the cool climate, being able to be outside with nature, and there were ways to get some privacy here. This is also where we collected data for our research projects. Every night the mamas would cook dinner for us, we would sit at a long wooden table eating and chatting. For fun we would hang out with our Equatoguinean counterparts from the National University of Equatorial Guinea or go into town.
This trip may seem like a vacation, but remember that you’re actually going to be taking classes during this time. After the field methods portion of the trip, we began to work on individual research projects for our “Natural Resource Economics” and “Field Research” class. Designing a research question and project was extremely difficult. Most of my life, teachers gave specific instructions to projects and topics, where if you did as they wanted you were guaranteed a good grade. Designing my own project required a lot more. The professors were there to advise, but it was up to you to come up with a question that we could test through data analysis and that could be completed in less than a months’ time. It was mostly due to limited time that many of our ideas couldn’t be completed. Eventually we were able to solidify our research projects. Then we worked with our professors to collect and analyze data.
Being Sick and Clinic Care
On this trip I was definitely sick the most: I scratched my eye, got a cold, damaged my ear drum, got Salmonella Tifis, and food virus. It may sound scary what I just told you, but I was the abnormal one and none of them were serious. All the other students didn’t go through any of these. The key to making sure you stay healthy is that when you are feeling bad in anyway and if you’re suffering from diarrhea, please let someone know. Mackenzie made sure I was taken care of when I was feeling under the weather each and every time. We even hiked out of the Moaba Camp to see a doctor at a clinic in Malabo. The doctor took really good care of me and explained to me in detail the situation I was in. I even got medicine to treat my illnesses. Please do not let sickness scare you off from traveling to Bioko. As a person who was constantly suffering from something, I didn’t regret coming because of sicknesses so don’t let that aspect deter you from coming to Bioko. There are wonderful clinics, doctors, and staff that will help you help you no matter what happens.
- Lots of long socks
- Hiking pack (you don’t have one, borrow one)
- A small sleeping bag
- A travel camping pillow
- Dry bags
- Power bank
- Snacks when camping
- WARNING: You’re going to eat lots of spam, sardines, rice, and pasta on the camping trips so if you want variety make sure to bring food you can travel with. The food is delicious though and make sure you eat lots of it because you’re going to need all the energy you can get.
- A good headlamp. Don’t be cheap, you’ll thank yourself
- Camp soap
- Bathing suit
- Hiking pants/hiking leggings (you’re not going to be constantly changing clothes, so it’s better to under pack when camping)
- Quick dry shirts are a must
- Flavor packets
- Fancy breathable clothes (people dress really nicely in Malabo!)
- About 300-400 in cash
Studying abroad in Bioko, Equatorial Guinea came with a lot of challenges both physical and mental. Completing physical tasks were not my strong suit, but it was worth it in the end. It allowed me to see new things and push myself. The most challenging was the mental aspect. Being away from your family and friends, missing home, and missing your favorite foods was something I thought about every day. The stress of all of our research projects was a lot since it was the first time designing and carrying out a project like this. Even though there were a lot of challenges, I had a great time studying in Bioko because of the other Drexel students, some faculty, and the Equatoguineans. They truly made the experience better and fun. The faculty knew a lot about the island and spread that knowledge to us. Even if it was about a restaurant. It was much easier to navigate the city with them around. The Equatoguineans were the friendliest people I have ever met, they loved getting to know us. We had students from the University of Equatorial Guinea that shared their views on conservation and we spent a lot of time getting to know each other. Lastly the other Drexel students truly made the experience the best it could be. They constantly cheered me on and we supported each other no matter what was happening.
The best advice I can give is to have a positive outlook and never say “I can’t” because you will miss out on things you may never get a chance to do again. At the end of the day you may be exhausted, but it will be all worth it. Some other tips include:
- Converse with the locals as much as possible! It will help you practice your Spanish and learn about their viewpoints as well as culture
- Be open to new experiences and challenges
- If you don’t feel comfortable with something, please tell your professors and advisor! There are always ways to work around those kind of things!
I will never forget studying in Bioko and I plan to go back on day to see the Island again.