Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Contemplating Ninjas

"Maybe I should have bought a donkey back in Mali," I thought, depressed as I stared at my map.

I couldn't decide which way to go to Brazzaville, in Republic of Congo. Travelers had been going via Franceville and Leconi, from Gabon's eastern border, hitching on trucks to the city of Oyo, then taking the regularly scheduled bus down a decent road to Brazzaville. But the costs between Leconi and Oyo were high, and I could end up waiting for a lift for days. On the plus side, I could take a reasonable Gabonese train as far as Franceville. But all bets were off from Leconi to Oyo. The traveler without a vehicle is completely at the mercy of any ride they can find, because there aren't enough trucks to give the traveler a decent negotiating position. I could easily spend a hundred dollars for that day-long journey over dreadful dirt tracks.

The southern route would take me into Congo via Doussala or Mbinda. My friend Peter had gone the Mbinda way many years ago and reported being able to catch a train from Mbinda to Dolisie, Congo, and he recalled the border guard nipping across country lines to get them all some fried rat. But that was a long time ago and I could find nothing online about that train. If there was no train, I'd be really screwed on the road front. Most of the roads in Congo are dreadful, and some of the major highways are just pitted truck ruts full of mud. And this wasn't a major road route. I'd probably end up having to backtrack.

That left Doussala. I had excellent instructions for following this route, courtesy writer Scott MacMillan who had just done the trip a few weeks before. The problem was that Scott had gone west at Dolisie, crossing the Angolan enclave of Cabinda before briefly transiting the other Congo (the big one, the Rumble in the Jungle one) on his way into Angola. I didn't have an Angolan visa yet, and potentially never would given the troubles travelers were reporting on getting these, plus I wanted to see both Brazzaville and Kinshasa. Going via Cabinda meant I'd just skirt through, not seeing either of these cities.

And I had a secret reason for wanting to go deeper into the Congos. I wanted souvenirs. I had textiles and carvings at home that I'd purchased in East Africa. They were stunning. And they were from Congo (Zaire).

I left the guesthouse to go across the street to a little shop to buy a single triangle of Laughing Cow cheese for thirty-two cents. I cooked my own breakfast (what a delight!) and read up on the news that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Full circle, I thought. 9/11 happened during the first MariesWorldTour. But this all seemed a million miles away, and I went back to nervously studying my options.

To go from Dolisie to Brazzaville was to go blind. There was a road, sure, but I couldn't find any online reports of anyone doing this by land in years, aside from a few people with their own 4x4s or motorbikes. The reason no one was doing it is that there had been rebels calling themselves "Ninjas" in the Pool region west of Brazzaville. They liked to extort and extract bribes, and they had big guns. People with their own transportation generally would zoom past the surprised Ninjas, who had supposedly quit rebelling and been incorporated into society again. Official policy was that the Ninjas were now responsible for providing security in this region, and they supposedly got on the train in Pool and intimidated people and shook them down for valuables.

Or maybe not. I was only able to find one report by a traveler who'd taken the train recently. He'd reported filthy, overcrowded conditions, but no Ninjas.

No news of Ninjas meant that they hadn't hurt anyone in a long time. But it didn't mean they weren't shaking people down. Travelers just weren't going on this route on public transport, so there was nothing online to search.

Still, I reasoned that if Ninjas were doing anything more than extracting a few valuables, there would be news out there somewhere. And I could always go by road. How bad could it be?

Plenty bad, said the Brazzaville hotel owner who'd written back to me last night. "You could get stuck for days."

Given the state of the road Scott had traveled on, I couldn't imagine this road was much worse. But apparently it was.

Still...the other way promised me a big blank space from Gabon to Oyo. The Dolisie-Brazzaville route was just as big a blank.

Six of one, half-dozen of the other. There is no good way, I thought.

"To hell with it. I can always fly if I get stuck."

I'd been considering flying anyway. If I didn't get an Angolan visa, I had no choice. I wasn't going to spend up to three weeks sitting in the mud—risking malaria and dengue fever—trying to get through Democratic Republic of Congo in the rainy season. No other passage was remotely viable. It was DRC, Angola, or fly.

But Angola didn't sound like a lot of fun the way I'd have to travel across it even if I *did* get the visa. Transit visas—if you were lucky enough to get one—were good for five days. Angola is huge—five days meant sleeping on the bus and traveling non-stop. That sounded like hell. I am quite interested in Angola...but not that way.

So...I could risk sitting on the border for days then being fleeced for lots of money via Franceville, or I could strike out blind into potentially rebel-filled Pool-Congo, where I had good instructions as far as Dolisie, and no idea what to do after that.

I decided to go to Dolisie.

I mean, I guess.

Or maybe not.

I'd work it out in the morning.

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