Friday, May 6, 2011

The Ninja Express

I awoke to the sound of a terrific hawking and spitting down the hall.

I peeked out of my room at Hotel Gabrielle, which I'd crawled into late last night, after the long day's truck journey from the Congo-Gabon border to here in Dolisie. I vaguely remembered the night clerk being hopelessly inept. He'd taken a basket of keys, then counted the room doors. There were no numbers on the doors, so he had to count from left to right to figure out which door was which.

"Un, deux, trois..."

I wanted to tell him the rooms hadn't moved. Hadn't he done this before? But I didn't dare interrupt as he kept having to start over as it was.

The hawking turned out to be a Chinese man. I remembered hearing that the Chinese were building roads here. But what he was doing here in town? Maybe they get R&R sometimes. I'd later hear mixed things about the Chinese presence in Republic of Congo, but I couldn't tell what was grousing about foreigners with money hanging around, or if there was some legitimacy to other travelers complaining that the Chinese pay the bribes we diligently refuse to pay, or if the complaining that they're too many of them is just because people are fearful.

People claim that the Chinese learn road skills in Congo and then are circulated back home to be replaced, using their new skills in China instead. These complaints are similar to ones I hear about Congolese not working hard, but I saw hundreds of them slaving away on the new road next to their Chinese supervisors. I am skeptical. Usually, these complaints can be reduced to one thing: We're different.

I quickly packed up and left at 7. If there was an eight o'clock train to Brazzaville, I wanted to be on it. If there wasn't, I needed an early start on whatever Plan B was going to be.

I'd paid the night before so I just walked out past the clueless clerk. After hailing a taxi and blathering on about the gare de la locamotiv, I found myself at the railway station.

Congolese women dressed in the usual colorful handmade matching headwrap, skirt, and blouse kept pushing past me in line, but then the friendly station master saw me. He motioned me around into his brightly lit, air-conditioned office.

Using a combination of writing, hand signals, semi-English, and semi-French, he explained to me that the train currently in the station was running late and still had to go to Pointe-Noire on the coast. It would return here at 5:30 p.m. and a first-class ticket was 15,000 CFA.

Deflated, I asked if there was a luggage storage place in the station. I knew there wasn't, but I was angling for an invite. Which this friendly man cheerily provided.

"Baggage ici," he said, pointing to a dusty cove under a counter, next to an unused stool. I could leave my baggage here until departure time.

Pleased-but-concerned about having a day in Dolisie, I thanked the man and went out onto the square in front of the station. About six stalls were actively selling baguettes and coffee, but I had my eye on the fancy hotel down the street. The burnt-sienna-colored colonial-style compound surrounded by steel gates was aptly name "Grand Hotel," which is was.

I bet they do a nice breakfast.

I was a little worried they'd sneer at my scruffiness, but the desk clerk motioned me right into the climate-controlled restaurant, which overlooked the pool and courtyard. Tables were impeccably set with cloth napkins, place settings, draped tablecloths. A gorgeous young woman with braided hair extensions and a crisp white shirt walked me over to the buffet table, where for ten high-priced bucks, I could eat bread, pain au chocolate, juice, coffee, cold cuts, and cheese to my heart's content.

I took advantage of the setting and stayed, typing, until 10:30. I then packed up and checked out the toilets. Clean and with seats! Their presence duly noted, I headed out, stopping at the front desk to inquire after the location of internet in Dolisie. It had been a few days and I had a lot of stories to tell.

The desk clerk looked baffled and shook his head. Really? Oh come on. Of course there's internet in Dolisie.

I tried a shop across the street, which sold printers and computers. The friendly owner handed me a slip of paper with a word written on it, which I handed to a taxi driver, who took me to a large campus up a mud road.

"Er, cyber?" I wasn't at all sure we were on the right track.

He nodded and pointed to a giant @ symbol sculpture in front of a building. Ah. Okay. I don't want to hear anything more from these expats about the Congolese being stupid or lazy. They have sure helped me out repeatedly.

The cybercafe's speeds were excruciating and the power cut off frequently. I had to use a PC for a while until a laptop station opened up.

I hoped Yahoo didn't make me change my password again. They'd twice suggested I'd been compromised after I used PCs in other countries. I also had to run through a series of Facebook security checks every time I used a new computer, where I identified photos of my friends. I'm not complaining--security on Facebook is a good thing. But everything was made more difficult by the French keyboard layout.

A flash thunderstorm—there's no other kind here, really—hit us around 3:30, making the power flicker on and off. At 4:30, I took advantage of a lull in the storm to walk to the road to hail a taxi. Another computer user walked with me, a college-age Congolese man.

"I live in Ouagadougou," he explained. "I'm here to visit my parents."

Based on what I've learned on this coast of Africa, working or studying abroad is common. Everyone seems to be on the move, traveling just like me or going long distances to see their families.

The taxi took me back to the Grand Hotel, where I was planning to visit the clean toilets before getting on the train. A security guard outside the hotel stopped me.

"blah french blah french Gabon truck nuit."

Oh, shit. This guy had been on the hellish truck journey with me yesterday. He grinned and introduced me to the other security guard. I was beginning to feel like a celebrity what with being recognized all the time.

"Je vais au Brazzaville en locamotive, je vais au toilette." Sometimes I feel like such an idiot trying to communicate in French. If only someone would ask me to play tennis, I could use those phrases I learned in high school French class.

I found my way to the train station. The ticket office was gated and the square was empty. Uh-oh.

There was an open gate on the far right side of the station, so I followed some men through it to find an open office that had nothing to do with selling tickets.

"Er, tren, quel heure?"

The man behind the desk, gruff and surly, wrote 2100 on a piece of paper.

Delayed again.

Back to the Grand Hotel for dinner and then to the cybercafe. If I'd known it would take this long, I'd have checked into the Hotel Gabrielle again to let the clerk count doors until he found me a place to sleep.

At the cybercafe, I kept an eye on the time on the PC I was using now that laptop had run out of battery charge. Time was passing swiftly.

Oh wait. That's because the computer clock is an hour ahead of real time.

And that is when it dawned on me that we'd had a time change recently. When? I didn't know. Maybe when I crossed from Gabon. Or maybe I'd been an hour off the whole time I'd been in Gabon. Good thing I noticed now, so I didn't miss the train.

As if.

At 8 p.m., I went back to the Grand Hotel, greeted my pals, used the ladies room one last time, and walked the block to the railway terminal. This time the ticket office was open. The clerk sold me a ticket for first class, smiling, and told me to go to the front of the train to get my seat on the first-class car. He handed me my luggage. He seemed truly delighted that a tourist was going on his train.

As did all the Congolese at the front of the platform. I sat down near two woman, four giant sacks, and a young boy. The boy was both terrified and fascinated of me, and various people stopped to inquire about my trip and my destination. Everyone was super-friendly, but the longer we sat there, the more nervous I became. I rely on moving swiftly, so that people see me but don't have time to react in anything more but the moment. Sitting for a long time in one place makes me nervous. The phrase "sitting duck" comes to mind.

An Angolan approached me and spoke Portuguese to me for some time. He was clearly asking for money, but I definitely do not speak Portuguese so had no problem putting him off. Everyone else was just asking about where I'd come from, was I really a tourist, and where was I going.

Then a policeman approached me. He explained that the train was now due in at midnight. He marched me down the platform to the police headquarters and installed me on a concrete bench right in front, where the police could keep an eye on me. Fine, except I was now at the totally wrong end of the platform.

A 20-year-old boy sat down beside me and started yammering excitedly in English. "WhereareyoufromwhereareyougoingItakeEnglishattheUSEmbassyinBrazzavilleIwillgotouniversityintheUStheyarehlepingmefillouttheformsIwillgettheTEFLcertificateObamaisgreatwhatdoyouthinkofOsamabinLadenkillingIknoweveryoneattheembassyyouwillmeetthemallwhenyougettoBrazzavilledoyouknowFiftyCent?"

He was charming.

"Oh and my country Congo? It is awful. I need to make a better life for myself."

I noticed he was shivering.

"It is so cold!"

It wasn't the least bit cold to me. If he does get to the US, he's going to be in for a shock.

"I predict the train will be in after three hours. We will arrive in Brazzaville at 7 p.m. tomorrow."

I stared at him in horror. This was turning into an epic. But they all have, lately.

"I will...just sleep. Yeah, I will sleep."

Now he laughed at me. "You can't sleep on this train. They will be singing. They will be dancing, and you won't get your own seat. Maybe three people in one seat. Maybe two. I did not buy a seat on the way out. I stood for 9 hours. That's why my brother is here with me, see him there? He is going to go get my seat while I bring on the bags."

I suddenly wished I weren't traveling alone.

A train came into the station and I perked up. "No, that train is from Mbinda. It is going to Pointe-Noire."


A bit later, another train came in. "No, that one is from Brazzaville and going to Pointe-Noire."

The train's engine was removed for some kind of problem. It disappeared. It never came back. The passengers on the Pointe-Noire train sat in darkness on the track for hours. I suppose one day, sooner or later, they must have continued.

"I will go find my brother now. I hope to see you later."

I dug around in the bottom of my bag for my plastic jacket to protect myself from the light rain that had started. I slung my legs over the pack, and leaned back in my comfy concrete bench.

And waited.

And waited some more.

The Pointe-Noire train was now very quiet. And then, sometimes after midnight, the Brazzaville train clanged into the station.

And as one, the entire crowd rushed the train, which was parked alongside the Pointe-Noire train, leaving only a narrow tunnel between the two.

The most logical thing to do in this circumstance was clearly to risk life, limb, and trampling small children in an attempt to storm the train.

"Good luck," said my American-fan friend. "Your car is at the front."

Oh FUCK. I hadn't counted on negotiating a frenzied tunnel of mass hysteria.

I looked left, past the Pointe-Noire train. It extended the length of the station and then some. Was there a way around the front? What if there wasn't and I went down there and got stuck and the train left while I was trying to find a way on.

I took a deep breath and dove in.

I pushed with the best of them, blocking with my pack. I hugged my daypack of passport and laptop to my chest, occasionally taking my hands off it to block a particularly frenzied passenger intent on plowing down a kid or grandma.

I fought my way through the crowd to the front.

In the mud.

Yeah, this was an experience, all right. But I thought I was doing okay.

At the front, I thought the car said 101 on the side (lights? No, why would there be lights? Did I mention this was all done in darkness?) and I climbed on-board. Now there was light. I could see madness, compartments made for six with ten people and three children, people lying on the floor to mark their territory, top bunks abandoned because they were only exposed metal with no more padding. I was a car too early and once I realized it, I was blocked in the corridor from both the front and the back.

And so I pushed on, through spaces I would have had a hard time fitting into even if I hadn't been wearing my backpack. All I had to do, I thought, was get through this last half a car, and I'd be at my assigned seat. Then...oh no.

A man on crutches.

I stopped abruptly and looked for a way to let him past. He kept coming. Relentlessly. The man on crutches did not hesitate for a second. I tried to back into a door. I didn't fit. I went back the way I came. A man with a huge gut was bearing down on me menacingly. I motioned behind me at the man on crutches.

Get out out of the way, dumbass, I thought. Back into a compartment and let this man pass.

He bellowed something belligerently at me. I can only imagine it was "Get out of my way, dumbass." He didn't seem concerned about the man with the crutches.

I was trapped now, in the corridor with no way out. The crutches man was behind me, the huge-gut man in front of me, snarling away.

"Where exactly do you expect me to go?" I asked in English. I know, pointless.

I glared at him, and what I did next, look, I had no choice. I barreled right into him. The element of surprise was on my size. I can't say I flattened him, because his big gut was not going anywhere. But my momentum plastered him against the wall.

He bellowed some more and we were stuck momentarily.

Oh well. Here goes.

I felt his gut roll past me like a giant ball that I was squishing around.

He was quiet now, totally surprised. And now I was able to go into an open door that I fit into and let the crutches man pass.

I went back now, following the fat man, who eventually disappeared into a compartment. I got to the bit between the trains, and the decrepit steps between carriages were menacing. Just as I stepped out onto one--back in darkness again after the lit compartments--a crack military team barged on past me.

"Hut!" Or whatever they were saying. One pitched his bag up from the platform. The one who pushed past me caught the bag and stashed it in what was once a luggage storage area and at the moment was full of bodies trying to stake a claim. The military guys brushed them aside as another bag flew on. "Hut! Hut! Hut!"

And they scrambled past me like I didn't exist.

Now I finally crossed the small gap between carriages.

First class was a single lit carriage of rows of seats, four across with an aisle down the middle. Shabby but quite civilized after what I'd just seen.

I pulled out my ticket. The military guys inspected it. One of them threw my pack into the overhead rack. Another started to direct me to seat one, and then...


Oh shit again.

Granny was in my seat. No one had the balls to throw out Granny. Not even me.

She smiled at us from her sunken face.

"I'm getting off soon," said a woman about my age. "Sit here until then and you can take my seat." She patted her armrest. I perched on it.

This wasn't really a good solution, of course. Presumably, the seat I'd been offered would eventually be sold to someone else. Perhaps it already had been.

The soldiers discussed me and decided they'd seen an empty seat somewhere else. A small one shouldered my pack and instructed me to follow him. By now, the space between the cars had been overwhelmed by squatters. They demanded we go around. He jumped off the train and I gingerly followed. We walk to the next car--it was easy now that everyone had settled in--and climbed the ladder back into the train. We walked to the "empty spot." But not only was it packed full of men who'd staked their claims, but it was in the chaotic squalor of second class. I knew I had to make a stink. I could barely stand first class.

"Primera class. Non, no es bon. My ticket is primera. Je vais au primera."

The soldier sighed and led me back to the first carriage. He threw my bag back up on the baggage rack and put me back on the armrest.

I sat there for a while, until another soldier gave me his seat. This wasn't so bad. Was it?

I looked to my left. Swarms of tiny cockroaches. What time was it? The train had been sitting for a long time. I went to look at my phone to see the time and...oh shit again. What the hell?

My daypack had been slashed.

When had that happened? Was anything missing? I could see at a glance that the slash was in the larger section of my daypack. My passport and money pouch was intact. That was the Kindle and laptop section. I felt the bag--Kindle accounted for. Peanut butter and jelly accounted for. Of course I would have noticed if my laptop had suddenly disappeared. Damn four-year-old MacBook isn't light. Only my Zip-Loc bag of peanuts had suffered, and not a peanut was missing. Just the plastic was slashed.

Had I torn it, maybe? I stared at the hole for a long time. No. Not just the canvas was slashed. This had gone right through the tough webbing as well. And the shape of the gap, the clean slice in the Zip-Loc bag. How depressing.

Glumly, I stared at the bag in a daze. And slowly, it started to occur to me that I was in over my head. I knew where this was going--I could feel the anxiety building. If the train left right now, I'd still be on it until Brazzaville.

I thought about the roaches. The seating problems. The inevitable visit to the toilets. Oh god, the toilets. Imagine the toilets.

I made it through another 40 minutes but it was only a matter of time. During those 40 minutes, I imagined the bag slasher returning once the train was underway, when everyone was asleep and the lights were out.

Not once did I worry about Ninjas, the Pool-region insurgents that were supposed to be the problem with this train.

There weren't any Ninjas. The real threat wasn't other people. It was my paranoia, now ramping into high-gear.

I tried to subdue the "I have GOT to get off this train" impulse. I managed to keep it to a mild "Yeah, let's go" feeling. I stood up, looked outside. Could I get around the front of the train? Was it more dangerous outside now than inside? My flashlight bulb had run out a few days ago.

"Pauvre American," said the young soldier behind me. Everyone could see me staring at my slashed bag. What they didn't know was I'd just now made the decision to give up on transiting West Africa without planes. Those of you who have been reading for a decade or more know that I gave up on East Africa too, after the Isuzu accident in Ethiopia.

Nothing to prove, I thought. It's just an arbitrary goal. 

I stood up, tugged down my backpack, and said goodbye. No one seemed the least-bit surprised. They probably wished they could fly too.

Gingerly cradling my daypack upside down so that nothing fell out, I walked out onto the platform between cars.


Oops. I'd stepped on someone. I nearly snarled "You shouldn't be lying in the doorway if you don't want to be stepped on," but people were everywhere. It was pointless.

I felt a hand guide my foot to the space between the man's arm and chest. Another hand guided the other foot to a spot between two men. And then I was free, out on the ladder to the ground. My feet touched mud.

I walked briskly, with intent, to the front of the train. There, I could see a way around the Pointe-Noire train. Pauvre American indeed. I felt sorry for the Congolese. They have to put up with this hell all the time.

And then I was past the train, squishing through the mud up to the station platform.

For a moment, I thought I couldn't get out. But the same little door that I'd entered through at 5:30 was open. I pushed through quickly, hoping to avoid people asking what went wrong.

Out in the square, I felt lighter, but I had a new problem. No taxis hang out between 3 and 4 in the morning when the trains have already theoretically departed.

Three guys were still there, shooting the breeze.

"Where are you going?" One asked.

I shrugged. "Hotel, maybe."

I started walking down the block to Grand Hotel. One of the men caught up with me.

"Here is a hotel," he said. And he had the key.

He opened the hotel and let me in. It didn't look like much.

"How much? I asked.

He scribbled 30,000 on a slip of paper. $60.

"I'm only going to be here a few hours," I said. "For that, I'm going to Grand Hotel."

I left, walked to Grand Hotel. One of my security guard pals let me in.

Two clerks were behind the desk, looking surprised.

"How much is a room?"


Oh hell. That's even worse.

"Er, that's too much."

"I will call my boss."

He woke up his boss, who said he could give the the room for 48,000. $96?

"Oh come on. That's still too much!"

"Where will you go?" The two guys were worried.

I shrugged again. "Hotel Gabriella, maybe."

I waited outside by the crossroads, and eventually a taxi did come by. He took me to Gabriella where I rang the bell relentlessly for the second night running, until the dopey guy let me in.

He grabbed his basket of keys and led me to the rooms.

"Un, deux,, wait. Un, deux, trois..."

He opened a room.

"No. That room isn't clean." I showed him the telltale foot-dirt on the sheets, the beer can in the trash. The musty smell. Oh, no A/C in this room. No ceiling fan either. Yeesh. He tried to get me to take it anyway. I marched to reception and plopped down on the sofa.

"I will sleep here," I declared.

That made him work a little harder. That's where he sleeps.

"Un, deux, trois..."

He tried for several minutes to open room 11 with the room 10 key. I wondered what the person inside was thinking.

He finally decided to try the same key in the door of the next room next. And when it opened, I was happy. Clean, a clean bucket of water in the shower, neatly made inviting bed, and an air conditioner.


Relieved, the clerk went back to his sofa to go to sleep. I went to lock my door and looked down. The basket of keys was there on the floor outside my door where he'd left it.

For a minute, I thought about taking it to him.

No. He'd find it sooner enough.

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