Thursday, May 5, 2011

By Road Through Congo

From Mali to Gabon, so many travel days had been relentless tests of endurance, the kind of days that left me grateful that most of my commutes involve 17 minutes on the subway. I'd heard the phrase "Now you are learning about transportation in Africa" more than once, which always made me wonder exactly how many lessons I really needed to be convinced that the roads could bear a bit of improvement.

But Congo...this was bad roads on a whole new level. Bad roads on a level I'd barely seen, and believe me, I've seen some bad roads. Congo roads make the legendary (and now repaired) Cambodian "road" from the Thai border to Siem Reap look like a suburban driveway. That's not because you couldn't park a truck in the potholes in Cambodia. No, there comes a point where one bad road can't be any worse than another bad road, and that point is once it's a mini-Grand Canyon, and all of those roads are equally horrific. No, what makes Congo stand out in the annals of legendary bad roads is the rainy season mixed with the mini-Grand Canyons.

Rain plus gaping crevasses equals you-know-what. Bogs. Trucks become like dinosaurs stuck in tar pits, their efforts to gain their freedom just digging them in deeper. One day our descendants will uncover perfectly preserved 1992 Mercedes trucks underground in Congo, and will wonder what circumstance could possibly have buried these trucks so thoroughly. Earthquake? Tsunami? Meteorite?

No. Just mud.

The best way out of bog is to be pulled out by a tractor. But that's not an option here, where the nearest tractors are probably in the southwest, where the Chinese are building roads. No, the way out of a bog in Congo is through people-power. That's how Mike's Mercedes had found release from last night's muddy pit. Through his crew pounding away at the mud with shovels and pickaxes at first light.

I hadn't yet seen the end result of the four hours of labor, and the time my friend Nikki's Dragoman truck passengers had to rebuild the road for days in Malawi to get out of a bog was very much on my mind as we left the border town of Ngongo and approached the site of Mike's bog from the night before.

The sun of the bright morning was deceptively pleasant, the road looking pretty straightforward in the light of day. If I hadn't seen the bog earlier this morning, I would never have understood how dire the situation was for the other trucker, still trapped.

How many days would he be there? Until the road dried?

Mike stopped the Mercedes about 50 feet short of the bog. His crew jumped out of the back of our truck, all carrying bricks they had loaded up in town. When had they done that? I hadn't seen. But they'd prepared for this moment ahead of time.

They were building a makeshift road. They dropped the bricks into the mud, hastily positioning them into place as a semi-solid surface. Traction. They all stood aside and looked back at our truck, that being a signal to Mike the driver.

I was taking photos, hoping to get a good shot when Mike addressed me in English.

"Hang on," said Mike. "Hold something."

Oh shit.

He simultaneously pulled the gear shifter while jabbing away at the floor pedals with his feet.

We lurched forward.

And we roared across the makeshift road over the bog, tipping wildly left and then right, jerking through the mud. Mike spun the steering wheel to compensate for each movement of the Mercedes.

And we were through. Just like that.

"Route ne pas bon," said Mike, apologetically.

To say the least.

The crew retrieved the mud-encased jack they'd loaned to the other truck, piled nonchalantly onto the back—this happened all the time, they seemed to say—except for one guy who moved up front to talk to me. We proceeded to drive through massive mud puddles and swamps, ping-ponging wildly along the road. I was airborne four times before noon.

"That was the worst part," said my new companion. "After this, it is easy."

He was right about it being easy in comparison. The mud dried up after the first hour, and when we encountered puddles, we'd drive straight through them. In spite of being bounced all over, we never appeared to be close to being stuck. When I think back to ten years ago, on a similar truck in Sudan, I am forced to admit that maybe this wasn't the worst road I'd ever been on, after all. At least this truck didn't seem to be imminently ready to demonstrate to me its point of departure. That is, the angle at which gravity wins.

But this is still an extremely uncomfortable way to travel. Think of the bumpiest journey you've had along a pitted, rural, dirt track. Now imagine your vehicle has no shocks. And your seat is worn out. You can feel each individual spring. And when you're airborne, you have to remind yourself not to let your calf land near the jagged bit of metal exposed on the left. All this for 140 miles, which sounds bad enough, but now imagine that these 140 miles take you 14.5 hours.

I was lucky. This guy was on board for twice as long a few weeks earlier.

I had no idea how Mike and the crew could handle this. Bear in mind that they'd done this journey yesterday, then slept in the mud, and still had a sense of humor about the journey. They were doing their jobs. Heck, they were probably happy to even have jobs. But how could Mike even stay alert this long?

The crew member beside me was relegated to the back when a paying passenger got on at Nyanga. The cab is highly desirable on these crazy trips and always costs more. Mike and the new passenger—and all of the crew—made it their business to look out for me. That's one thing about traveling as a woman. Wanted or not, you get a lot more help than male travelers do. People see in me their mothers, their sisters, their wives. They bend over backwards to make sure I'm safe.

The truck broke down once and had to be repaired right there on the road. Several times we stopped so the truck mechanic could lift the hood and tinker, but when we actually broke down, it was Mike who burrowed in under the hood and fixed the Mercedes.

He triumphantly pointed this out to me after the mechanic and crew had gone back into the cargo bay.

"Mechanic," he said gleefully, pointing at himself.

 After dark, the headlights quit working. The truck crew turned on the flashlights to light the road the rest of the way to the junction town of Mila Mila.

Mike turned off the truck and everyone got out. Even the goats, all tied together, were carried out. This was a dinner stop as well as a headlight-repair stop. By night, Mila Mila looked hopping. (I later saw a photo of it by day and laughed at the bright-lights-big-city impression it had left on me.) This was a major rest stop for logging trucks and the bars in town competed to get attention by having the loudest music and the most lights.

I wandered the small strip of shops and bars, but what excited me was the lights in the distance. Surely that was Dolisie. 31.5 miles away. We were practically there.

It still took three hours to cover the short distance. The roads did not get better until we hit tarmac on the outskirts of Dolisie.

In Mila Mila, I sat in a shop and ordered a Fanta. A Michael Jackson video of him performing Beatles songs was on behind me. Several curiosity-seekers stopped to see what I was doing there. Most of them spoke a little English, and one thirty-something man was fluent.

"I know English because we learn it in school. We learn many things in school. Many Africans are fluent in English and French and are highly intellectual. But the problem is still that there are no jobs. You guys think we are stupid because we don't have jobs, but we are educated too. The problem is there are just no jobs."

I struggled to respond.

Of course I didn't assume he was stupid. But to answer this would be tricky—he's right, of course. One thing I've noticed in how people respond to my book Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik is that some insensitive clods appear to believe in the myth of the noble savage, that the beauty of Africa is in the simplicity and naivete of wide-eyed childlike inhabitants living off the land in their native twig-skirts and that I'm wrong not to expound upon this fictitious quality in print.

This is ludicrous, of course, but I couldn't respond to this man that he was wrong. He is actually quite right about what many people believe, much the way some believe that Americans are loud and don't know geography, or that Germans never break rules and have no sense of humor, or that all French people are snobby and rude. My new Congolese friend smiled and didn't wait for my response.

"Anyway, I am going home. It is nice to meet you and I wish you a safe journey to South Africa."

Mike honked the Mercedes horn. That was our signal. All the passengers and their goats piled into the back. I climbed up into the cab, the other passenger behind me. We placed my annoying water bottle between us—annoying because it has a habit of rolling away when the truck is lurching around. Mike turned on the headlights and they worked. We made a U-turn back to the crossroads, took a right, and headed out.

We pulled into the bus station in Dolisie at midnight. My back was sore. Everything was sore. I was near-delirious from physical exhaustion, boredom, and diesel fumes, and hurt like hell from bouncing around all day. The bouncing was relentless. All I wanted to do was get in a taxi and say "Take me to the best hotel in town." But when a taxi driver approached, the truck crew chased him off. THEY would take me to a hotel, thank you very much.

"SHE IS GOING WITH US," said the passenger who sat in the cab with me. The taxi driver backed away.

This was a bad idea, and I knew it. The huge truck driving around town in the middle of the night, the staff trying to wake people up at small hotels? After the second strikeout, I gently pushed them into letting me get into a taxi. By now, Mike and the rest of the crew knew that I was right. They'd hammered away on doors at two small inns but the interiors had stayed dark. The passengers were all tired. No one wanted to drive me around Dolisie all night.

Mike motioned to a bar up the road from the second hotel that hadn't answered us. One of the crew walked me and my backpack over to a taxi in front of the bar. He told the driver to take me to a hotel. I waved back at Mike, the passenger who had been next to me for ten hours, all the passengers left in the back, their goats. A simple good-bye didn't really cut it after a trip like that. But they'd dissolve into the night and that would be the end of our bond.

"Which hotel?"

"Any hotel that is bon and had an en suite douche."

The taxi driver laughed.

And that is how I ended up in Hotel Gabrielle, which has little air-conditioned cells that feature tile compartments that include a bucket of water in them along with a non-working shower nozzle. Toilets are at the end of the courtyard (no seats, of course).

My en suite douche wasn't really a surprise, though it was a bit of a letdown. Ah, who cares, I thought. It was great to just have water along with my soap, and I was leaving at 7 anyway.

One bit of information I'd wheedled out of the taxi driver was that the train to Brazzaville leaves on Friday. Which was good. My gamble of racing from Ndende to the Congolese border had paid off.

Or so I thought for what remained of my night and most of the next day.

1 comment:

  1. This has got to be my favorite post to date. But then I haven't read your post on the Ninjas yet. Your description of bad roads is perfect!!