Saturday, April 30, 2011

On to Gabon

"How do I get out of here?" I addressed a matronly woman sitting at the dining room table on the porch at the hotel/family home I'd checked into last night Ambam, Cameroon.

"You need a taxi?"

I nodded.

"Wait." She called her helper, who was the same college-age kid who'd checked me in last night. I'd guess this was her son, and her husband was the man who'd been sitting in the living room last night when I'd arrived. Helper-son disappeared through an opening in the wall of the yard. Minutes later, I heard a whirring. He showed up on the back of a motorcycle taxi he'd hailed.

He told the driver to take me back to the bus station. The taxi guy stuck my backpack on the front of the motorbike, using his knees to stabilize it. My backpack has been transported this way across a dozen countries. It made me nervous originally, but now I know that this is just how things are carried on motorbike taxis.

We zipped up a dirt road, hitting tarmac at a crossroads, and arrived back at the bus station.

"No, no, not here," said a man shaking his head at my driver. "You must take her to the cars to go to the border."

Another traveler, a young man from Cameroon, was having the same discussion. We both whirred off to the shared cars two kilometers away, our motorbikes traveling as a convoy.

We were both pushed into a tight squeeze of four across a sedan back seat. Our luggage went into the trunk, and we were off for the border.

This was tight. Physically, there's no way I should have fit. The man and woman who were already in the car were plenty large enough for the small backseat. I don't think I was even grounded on the actual seat. I was sideways, my left hip on my neighbor's thigh and my right hip smushed up onto the armrest on the inside of the door. My foot went to sleep. I shifted, causing a chain reaction of everyone shifting.

The journey was short and at the border town, my new friend, who I'd just spent the last hour sitting on, decided to help me. He left his luggage with a friend at a kiosk, and hired two motorbikes to the border.

"Uh..." I wished he wouldn't do that. I knew he was just trying to help, but I'd have to pay for him as well as me.  And I'd read something on a blog about having to do things in a certain order.

The two motorbike drivers took us through town and started heading to the border. As we went through the town center, we passed an immigration office.

"There?" I asked my new friend.

He shook his head.

Okay. I'd have to assume he knew what he was doing. But then I remembered the blog I'd read, and also thought back to the locals who'd encouraged me to blaze right through the borders at Benin and Nigeria. It's easy, just walk through!

The rules are clearly different for regional passport holders. But also, the trick to traveling in Africa is to just go with it. Things work out about three-quarters of the time, leaving a pretty unfortunate margin of error.

Here we are, I thought, when we eventually slowed down and stopped outside a shack. But it was just a police checkpoint. A policeman laboriously wrote down my details and we were off again to the border.

The taxi drivers had delivered us. I paid them for both lifts, mine and my helper's, and they whizzed off, heading back to town. My helper proudly led me up to the passport-control kiosk.

And his face fell, as the officer on duty asked him something sharply in French. I got the gist of it, as I'd gotten the gist the last two months in spite of having very little French vocabulary.

Predictably, I needed the stamp from that office we'd passed back in town.

We hired two new moto taxis, which out here in the middle of nowhere, commanded twice the prices of the taxis we'd hired in town. We drove back to the police checkpoint, registered my details again, drove back to town, got me stamped out (interrupting several people eating breakfast—I'd left Ambam at the crack of dawn), and went back to the moto taxis.

Now I had to put a stop to this.

"Merci pour assistance," I said to my helper. " au frontier solo." Shit, why had I taken German in high school when I could have taken Spanish or French? 

I used my hands to wave a kind of blocking motion at his chest. See, you don't need to go back to the border with me. Je vais alone. I can handle this.

He looked relieved and suggested I pay a small fortune to the taxi drivers. Sigh. Couldn't see that one coming, could I? 

I paid it and thanked him, then finally, jumped on the back of the remaining moto taxi. Time to drive back to the police checkpoint, register all my details, go back to the border, and get stamped out of Cameroon.

I did, and after showing my passport stamp to the last officer at the last hut in Cameroon (who was also eating breakfast), I walked across into Gabon.

To find no vehicles. No share-taxis or private cars. Maybe I should have crossed a little later, I thought. Maybe I shouldn't have crossed on a Saturday morning.

Then, a thump-thump-thumping stereo interrupted my thoughts. A small Toyota had pulled up, its windows down, the driver motioning to me. Did I want a lift?

Hell, yeah. 

He was a taxi, although unofficial. A Gabonese woman hurried up...don't leave me! We went through Gabonese formalities.

More forms. More hurrying up to wait. More checks.

And we were off, zooming to the police station in Bitam, Gabon. That's where I'd get my entry stamp and find onward transport.

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