Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Morning Stroll

One piece of advice that I always give to tourists heading to Cape Town is this:

The second you have a clear, windless day, go up the cable car to the top of Table Mountain. You may not get the chance again.

I hadn't taken my own advice. I'd done laundry instead of grabbing my chance on the first day, when the weather was perfect. 24 hours later, the cape was covered in fog and rain.

Nevertheless, I dragged myself out of bed on Saturday morning and walked over to Tourist Information. I knew I could take a minibus along Long Street as I had dozens of times before, but I couldn't remember how or where to catch it. And I hadn't yet noticed that brand-new bus lines that had come to Cape Town along with the World Cup—these wonderful things could zip me all the way from a block below Kloof Street to the V&A Waterfront and back.

"It's only you today," said the South African guide who met me to lead the walking tour of the City Bowl and Bo-Kaap. "No one else is here because of the rain!"

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sunny Day on the Cape

Dazed and delighted to be in the Cape Town bus terminal, I stumbled out of the bottom of the Intercape double-decker bus after a long night, into the sunshine of a self-aware beautiful city.

Cape Town's charm isn't lessened by its awareness of its beauty. I love Cape Town as much as anyone else who's ever visited.

I picked a friendly old guy in a hat to taxi me to Cape Town Backpackers, and a young Australian couple joined me as they were going to a hostel nearby.

Over the next few days, I realized I was done with backpackers hostels after mornings of waking up to every cup, mug, and glass in the hostel being half-full of wine and in the sink. I'd have to do the dishes before having coffee.

But it was still great to be able to prepare my own morning coffee, to open up a few envelopes of Oats-So-Easy and have instant oatmeal alongside granola & yogurt, rather than greasy eggs at a restaurant. And I met some of the backpackers. Some of them were interesting, had driven down from Europe, and had great stories to tell. Others appeared to be solely interested in assisting the South African economy through the purchase of as much of its alcohol as possible. And I was almost always the oldest one in the room.

Me Jabbering A Lot

Look what's up on my pal Cyrus' page! It's an interview with me about what I'm doing—traveling. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Confused in Windhoek

One change in my traveling style from the first MariesWorldTour.com is this:

When faced with a choice between favoring my cheap side and favoring my lazy side, I've started to act in favor of the latter.

And that is why I took the Town Hoppers shuttle bus from Swakopmund to Windhoek instead of the Intercape bus. Which is fine, but less frequent and involved me hiking over to the bus stop, then getting a taxi once I got to Windhoek.

I had $10.38 left in my checking account until payday—I actually do get paid for all that comic book work I was doing in hotel rooms at night. But that didn't stop me from spending more for door-to-door service. But the fact that I am still working while taking this trip has made me more likely to spend a bit here and there. Of course, I am spending more than I earn. I was running at a loss before I even left the States, having rented out my apartment for less than cost since it's hard to rent a place out in February. And I'm still paying my US health insurance, car insurance, property taxes on my garage...last time I made a clean break. But what I learned from that is that re-entry is toughest when you have nothing to go home to.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Living Desert Photos

Here are some more photos of the Living Desert Tour I went on in Swakopmund.

And here's a little something extra.

Sand and Tongues in Swakop

My last day in Swakopmund.

Before I left, I had one last thing to do in town. I wanted to go on a desert tour. These are popular as people come back with tales of madmen digging for exploding chameleons. Okay, not really exploding. But sun-sensitive.

There are two outfitters in town, and using a careful scientific method, I went with the one that Tourist Information booked for me, Tommy's Living Desert Tour.

Desert tours are popular for a reason—a saucy host (a kind-of regional Crocodile Hunter) drives you around, stops when he sees the "bush newspaper" (meaning nearly invisible evidence that a lizard, snake, or spider is nearby), then he screeches to a half, finds the creature, and shows it to you, explaining all about its habits and characteristics while making off-color jokes.

You also get out into the dunes near Swakopmund with a expert, which is excellent. And I finally got my question answered about if quad-biking is bad for the environment or not. The answer is sure, it is. But the outfitters in Swakopmund are generally responsible and involved in conservation. The problem is the independent quad-bikers, the weekenders who come to town and have no awareness of the eco-system they're destroying when the run rampant off the set tracks. Nature is losing its battle even as the outfitters try to raise awareness among their sympathetic clients.

We saw snakes, chameleons, spiders...everything we'd been promised. And after the trip, I went back to the coffee shop that had once been "Out of Africa," and now...I never even looked at the sign. I read the life-affirming quotation on my sugar packet as the sun went down.

Would I ever be back to Swakopmund? I'd thought that each time I'd come here. I hope so. I love the funny combination of cultures here.

I hope the chameleons are still there when I get back.



Saturday, May 21, 2011

Visiting an Old Friend

Swakopmund is familiar to me, a place that I can stop to catch my breath, and one of several places I've called home for short periods of time over the years. It's also a key place in Marie-mythology, having been the location for an early chapter of my book, Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik, and the site of a life-changing moment for me in 2005, at the beginning of my then-No Hurry In Africa blogging. Three or four of you have been along for the virtual ride since then, and I thank you for that.

I hadn't stayed at many hotels or eaten at many restaurants in Swakopmund before, because when I was here in 2005, I stayed in a rental apartment and enjoyed cooking for myself. I'd chosen Dunedin Star (named after a shipwreck) based on its price. But I was surprised when, late in the week, I learned it wasn't pronounced Dunedin like the New Zealand city.

Dunedin is pronounced "Done-eatin'." No wonder people had been looking at me funny when they asked me where I was staying.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Flying Over Sossusvlei

I was back at the Bushbird office at two, where I joined two older Australian couples in a minibus for the ride out to the edge of Swakopmund, to the tiny airport.

"Try not to get your cameras too close to the windows," the pilot pointed out. "See, they're just plexiglass and they scratch real easy."

Even with that warning, I bumped a few times.

We all put on headphones to both cancel out some of the loudness of the plane's engine and so we could hear the pilot's instructions.

"Do you think the haze will burn off?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, it's just hazy over Swakopmund." Which is frequently how it is in Swakopmund. Lots of mist and haze.

"Where are you from?" One of the Australians wanted to know who was piloting us.

"Hungary."

You Call That Working?

"I will work today," I thought with determination when I  awoke in my cute room at Dunedin Star Guest Lodge on the morning of my first full day in Swakopmund, Namibia.

And that lasted until I tried to find the "Out of Africa" coffee shop that I'd last been to in 2005. Gone...how long? A new coffee shop had replaced it, but more importantly, the flight-seeing outfitter on the corner had a sandwich board outside.

Ohhhh...there's a seat on a flight-seeing trip over Sossusvlei this afternoon.

I'd hunted for an elusive last-remaining (thus, discounted) seat for the entire month I'd last been in Swakopmund, some five years back. I'd been to Sossusvlei—which is an otherworldly, undulating mass of giant dunes that is really called Namib-Naukluft National Park—in 2001 with Shawn and the Crazy Kudu group, but I'd always wanted to see it from the sky.

Now was my chance, and on my first full day in town. This might not even happen again while I'm here, I thought. I went into the Bush Bird store, booked, and paid.

The German man behind the counter handed me a ticket, told me to come back at 2, and reminded me that mum was the word on the last-minute discounted tickets. Which, given that I'd been actively in the market for one, is kind of an open secret.

I was going over the dunes in a plane.


Monday, May 16, 2011

On Familiar Ground

"Hey, mzungu!"

I grinned at the man pointing me in the direction of the overnight bus to Namibia. It was nice to be back in this part of the world. The word "mzungu" is slightly rude, like if you said "Hey, foreign tourist," to random sightseers on the streets of Manhattan, but in the current context, it was just a reminder that I was back in a part of Africa that is familiar and comfortable for me.

And that's it for me and Zambia, I thought, as I found the Intercape stop in the center of Livingstone. It was where I'd caught the CR Holdings bus twice before during other journeys, on a corner by what looked like a little shack, but was actually a ticket booth.

The noon bus had started in Vic Falls, Zimbabwe. This route is relatively new—the bus used to transit Botswana before the new road and bridge were built on the Zambian side. I was delighted as it meant I didn't have to find my way to an Intercape stop in Namibia or Zimbabwe, but one older German traveler who'd boarded in Vic Falls was pissed.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Helicopters, Lions, and Scott

Next! Time for my helicopter ride over Victoria Falls.

A white van showed up to drive me right back to where I'd been this morning, near the national park. We picked up other passengers en route. I couldn't help but notice that everyone else was staying at some swank digs. Helicopter rides don't come cheap.

We got a quick safety briefing next to the video editor, who was using a super-swank new Mac (jealous). Then we were whisked out to the helicopter, and just as I thought "Maybe I should have tried to fly on the ultra-light instead," we were ushered in, told to put on headphones, and up we went. 


Hey, what's that up ahead?

No Longer the Last White Rhino in Zambia

If every day were like today, I could probably do a MariesWorldTour in a month. And I'd have to, because that's how long my money would last.

Livingstone has taken over where Zimbabwean sister-city Vic Falls left off a decade ago. In 2001, Livingstone was a sleepy alternative to rollicking Vic Falls. Now, after years of poor government and political stupidity across the river in Zimbabwe, tables have turned. Going into Zimbabwe hasn't crossed my mind in years, though I did encourage Amanda to go and spend money in the crafts market when she was in this part of the world.

Nowadays, on the Zambian side, you can raft, quad-bike, canoe, ride elephants, kayak, bungee jump, jet boat, microlight, abseil, ride horses, go on safari, helicopter over the falls, and walk around with baby lions. Or, of course, just look at the falls.

Rafting was out—it wasn't running due to high water levels. And I would have done it again, because whitewater rafting on the Zambezi is fun. And I don't find genuine fun in that many things. I usually reserve a small part of myself, for whatever reason, and fun is something I seldom embrace wholeheartedly. But fun is to be had left-and-right in Vic Falls. I wouldn't dream of doing the bungee jump alone—it just doesn't seem like all that great a solo project. But I did sign up for activities for the entire day.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lightening Up

Now that I'd smuggled my contraband Tintin souvenirs out of Democratic Republic of Congo, I had a mission.

Send the damn things home and quite lugging them around. 

I took inventory of all the souvenirs I was still carrying. 

A mask for Lisa. 


The Smoke that Thunders

One great thing about staying at Fawlty Towers in Livingstone, Zambia, is that every morning, they offer a free shuttle to Victoria Falls.

I visited Vic Falls in 2001, but hadn't been back since, not even on my return visit in 2005.

So this morning, I got up, enjoyed my hot shower and breakfast, then went up to look at the falls.

Baboons roamed nearby. Monkeys. Falls. And me without a barrel.

The falls were at their highest level in years—the whitewater rafting isn't even running now. And a Zambian fellow named Eddie who hangs around the viewing point with his camera and laptop took my photo for me with my own camera, just because he's a nice guy.

As I left the area to catch a shared-taxi back to town, I ran into the Swedish nursing students.

"We went up in the helicopter over the falls! It's amazing! You should go."

That settled it, then. I should go.



Thursday, May 12, 2011

Transitioning into Tourist

The dark, wide streets of Lubumbashi are empty at five in the morning. My taxi driver and I headed to the airport in silence. He was probably groggy, though he was sharply dressed in a crisp white shirt and pressed trousers. I'd worried he wouldn't show up and I'd be stuck, alone in the procure courtyard but for the frogs and the burbling fountain. No taxi driver cruises the church for five a.m. fares in Lubumbashi.

I was alert and nervous. My contraband Tintin carvings were camouflaged in my backpack, hidden under layers of jacket and towel, while my clothing was folded into a zippered plastic bag. Would the Lubumbashi airport security guys be as jackass-y as the Kinshasa ones?

If I could get my carvings to Zambia, I was home free. I could post them home from Livingstone, where tourists sending home souvenirs is not just normal, but is greatly encouraged. Zambia loves tourism. When Zimbabwe's government went whacko, Zambia welcomed its farmers with open arms and its tourists with massive promotional campaigns. Bonus: Since my first visit to Zambia in 2001, it had experienced a public anti-corruption campaign that focused on both prevention and punishment. No one in Zambia was going to pretend a few Tintin souvenirs were priceless antiques in order to extract a buck from me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Leaving Before Leaving

"Taxi?"

The tall older man in glasses almost lazily suggested I might need a cab at the Lubumbashi airport. He motioned to his sedan, which was a right-hand drive car even though DRC is a right-hand drive country. Ah, so the cars come here from South Africa. Of course. Because there's no road to get them here from Kinshasa.

"Yes."

"Hotel?"

"Er...La Procure."

"La Procure?" A procure is a church guesthouse. It's not entirely uncommon for foreigners to stay in them—and for budget travelers, it's often the best option—but Lubumbashi is a prosperous mining town on a panhandle that juts into Zambia's "Copperbelt" region. Most foreigners who come here are on business. Hotels aren't cheap in Lubumbashi. Even the church guesthouse is $40 a night.

I had a map that Michael Kraiger had scanned in from my Bradt Congo guidebook, and unfortunately it was a really half-assed map, so I have no idea if I was in the right church guesthouse or not. Is there more than one? I'll never know. But my taxi driver took me along pleasant, paved roads through a lovely tree-lined city to a huge cathedral, then turned into a dirt alley across the street from it.

I never would have found this on my own, I thought. La Procure was invisible from the street.

He parked in a courtyard and pointed me to Reception, where it was no problem to acquire a room and (included!) dinner ticket for the night. I arranged for the driver to return at 5 a.m.—argh—to take me back to the airport for the hour-long jump to Lusaka.

I made an effort to see Lubumbashi but couldn't even find the center of town with my map. I walked along the road past mobile phone credit stores, internet cafes, and small department stores. But DRC still scares me—as soon as the sun started to go down, I scurried back to my simple room, where I packed all of my clothes into my plastic zippered bag and stuffed all of my souvenirs into my backpack, covering them with a few shirts.

Would I manage to smuggle out my Tintin souvenirs in the morning? What would I do if someone tried to extract a bribe for these supposed "antiques?"

I had an idea...maybe I'd just pay it.

I tried the church dinner--chicken and rice. Nice. Simple. The other procure residents sat in silence, eating together but alone.

The procure's shower block didn't really do it for me...bucket showers and mosquitoes. I could make it to Zambia tomorrow night.

Zambia. 

I pulled down the mosquito net over my bed and thought about Zambia. Wonderful place. Green, easy, friendly. Me? I was tired. I do this to myself on purpose, take local transport in some of the world's toughest countries. I firmly believe it's the best way to instantly immerse yourself into an area, to deliberately put yourself into an exhausting, taxing stew with the local people. You learn. You sweat. You get dirty. You see what extremes people must go to for simple things, like selling their goats. But it doesn't take long before you start think about how much nicer your own bed can be than the back of a cramped mini-bus.

Zambia. I love Zambia. I want to marry Zambia. 


Soon.

The Adventures of Tintin (and Marie)

The taxi driver dropped me off outside the security barrier at Kinshasa's airport. They all do—no one wants to pay the fee to go inside.

Traffic had been nightmarish, the road crowded and broken as drivers improvised their own alternate routes around fallen poles, mud-filled craters, and cars left for dead.

Two men were selling woven, zippered bags outside the airport. You know the kind—heavy plaid plastic that comes in different sizes. You may have used one yourself at some point en route to the laundromat.

I was thrilled to see the bag sellers—the Tintin carvings I'd purchased in Brazzaville were such odd sizes, long and thin. They didn't fit in any bag I had in my backpack.

I happily purchased a $2 zippered bag, carefully placed my two towel-wrapped Tintin canoes and one Tintin & Snowy carving into the bag, then zipped it up. I'd carry this on the plane to avoid the risk of damage in the luggage hold.

Check-in went smoothly in the cavernous dark old airport, and then I went past the security line, ignoring hints for tips.

DRC wasn't so bad, I decided. Expensive, sure. Corrupt...well, yeah. But from what I'd read, I'd expected to be put through hell first when entering the country at "the Beach," then just by existing in Kinshasa, and finally, I'd expected a kind of conflict-zone hazing greed ritual at the airport. But the worst thing I'd encountered so far was slow wifi and bad traffic.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Familiar Tone

Kinshasa's Ave Maria Hotel was just fine.

I was surprised. Kinshasa has a reputation for offering very little for a great deal of money in the way of hotel rooms. But this hotel was similar to plenty of mid-level hotels I'd been to in both East and West Africa. And the main street didn't seem all that different from main streets in East African capital cities.

I went wandering around, looking for both the crime-ridden chaos I'd been told to expect and for a ticket agent to sell me an airplane ticket so I could find my way to the southeastern tip of DRC without sitting in the back of a cargo truck for weeks.

Brazzaville to Kinshasa

Sooner or later, I had to cross the river.

The mighty Congo River separates Congo from Congo. And if you're confused, you're not alone. Big Congo has been called one or another variation on the name Congo since 1885, except for 1971-1997, when it was called Zaire. Meanwhile, Little Congo has been both Middle Congo and Republic of Congo during that time.

We differentiate like this: Congo-Kinshasa (or DRC for Democratic Republic of Congo) and Congo-Brazzaville. But not everyone in Congo-Brazzaville does this. I heard many people describe their larger neighbor like this:

Zaire.

And it was frequently said with a bit of disdain. Could it be that not all Congolese from Congo-Brazzaville are happy to share their name? And yet, to the rest of the world, the whole region is just the Congo, a big area on the map that represents war and poverty to us, along with the minerals that make our cell phones.

We all know that this is a gross oversimplification. But as people battle through their days, putting out proverbial fires in their local lives, there ends up not being so much time left for understanding far-away lands.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Souvenir Hunting in Brazzaville

I relished the strong morning coffee at Brazzaville's Hippocampe, which showed up in an individual-sized French press.

Mmmmm, what could be better than a French-Vietnamese hotel-restaurant? Besides one that has less buggy wi-fi, I mean. But that's regional, the same across the Congos and much of central Africa.

"Where do you think I can get good souvenirs," I asked Olivier, who runs the lodge along with his wife for his Vietnamese in-laws. I love Congolese textiles—I have a few at home and also a carving of a Belgian policeman—and my dark secret about why I'd been so desperate to get to Brazzaville and Kinshasa is that I wanted to buy some of those for people who click on the "Souvenir" link above and send in fifty bucks.

"Try the Marche Touristique," he said. "They'll have exactly what you need."

I trusted his judgement—Olivier was an overlander himself, having ridden his bicycle all around the world, which is why he lets overlanders camp for free—so after a quick walking trip down to the ATM that works with my Citibank Mastercard-branded card, I hailed a taxi and went straight to the March Touristique.

The taxi overshot and left me in front of a large vegetable stand.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

"You're going to fly from Pointe-Noire to Brazzaville?" The oil guy from Queens had been incredulous last night. "Don't you know that planes here have a terrible safety record? One in three has a problem."

I don't believe that one in three planes has a problem in Congo. Three planes left the hour I was sitting in the airport, and they left on time. But anyway, I think I convinced him of my point a moment later.

"What do you think are the safety records of the trucks and buses I've been traveling on?"

He laughed, seeing my point.

"Still, you have balls."

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Turning Pointe

Need coffee.

Food.

Mostly coffee.

8:30 a.m. and I was doing a Groundhog Day-like repeat of yesterday. I woke up in an air-conditioned concrete square in Hotel Gabrielle in Dolisie, Republic of Congo. Hadn't I checked out of here? I pulled on all my clothes and padded down the hall to the toilet block.

There, that's the one with paper. 

I needed to figure out what to do, now that I'd fled the train to Brazzaville. Did I want to fly? I knew I didn't want to embark on a two-day hellish overland truck journey through the mud. Or did I want to go to Pointe-Noire on the coast? From there, lots of planes flew to Brazzaville, or I could apply for an Angola visa and transit the Angolan enclave of Cabinda to Democratic Republic of Congo. But tourists were struggling to get Angolan visas at the moment, and if I managed to get one, I'd be using a day of a five-day transit visa in Cabinda, which meant having four days to cross all of Angola.

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.

Amusement

Q: How do you get from Ndende, Gabon to Swakopmund, Namibia?

A: Not the way I decided to go, apparently.


View Larger Map

Thanks to Scott of WanderingSavage.com for calling my attention to this. 

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.

A Slow Start

When my little travel alarm went off at 3:45 a.m., I felt for the clock next to me on the bed and hit "snooze." Why is it that now I wanted to sleep, after barely sleeping throughout the night? I'd woken up constantly—what if I missed the blaring horn of the truck that was going to take me through the mud away from the border?

There was really no chance of that. I was in rural Congo, in a tiny border village where almost no one had a car or even a television, where a goat's sneeze would probably have woken me up. Aside from the crickets and frogs, nothing stirred.

I pulled on the clothes I'd placed next to me under the mosquito net, unlocked the door, and went out into the dark night.

No truck.

Hmmm.

I went back inside until 4, then checked again.

Still no truck.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Into the Unknown

The omelet I was served at Hotel du la Lac in Mouila wasn't greasy. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen an omelet this well-cooked. Maybe at that amazing hotel I'd been to in Djenne.

Wow. More reason to love the cook, the grandma who'd startled me last night with the offer of antelope.

I was slack about getting out of my hotel on time. The food was great, the wi-fi good. Who knew when I'd next have a reliable connection? Certainly I'd have no access for the next few days, as I rolled with the peanut butter and mud into Republic of Congo.

Still, in spite of meandering, I got to the rendezvous point for Ndende-bound transport by nine.

Plenty of time, I thought, to make the two-hour drive to Ndende—where I needed to be stamped out of Gabon—and be there by noon before the police left for their three-hour lunch break. But an hour is never enough leeway in this part of Africa. I should know that by now.

At a dusty roundabout in the center of Mouila, two kids motioned for me to put my bag into the back of the next available transport for Ndende, a white Mitsubishi pickup truck covered in drying orange mud. I wrapped my bag in a plastic cover that I carry around, and then searched the nearby Lebanese-owned shops for a garbage bag (double protection!) with no success.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

South through Gabon

I stored my new jar of peanut butter carefully at the bottom of my bag. That's traveler's gold when you're about to embark on several long transportation days into the unknown. Yes, it's full of fat. But guess what? Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches don't go bad in your daypack the way most things do. And even squashed, they're still edible and don't make much of a mess, even when the jelly bleeds through the bread.

I was packing at six in the morning at the Libreville Guesthouse. Alace, one of the people who runs the guesthouse, had gifted me with the Jif and a squeeze bottle of Welch's. I was set for food on my journey south into Republic of Congo. Alace does not, of course, randomly hand out jars of peanut butter to every traveler who comes to the guesthouse. In fact, not every traveler is able to stay at the guesthouse—it's a great, comfortable place, cheap for Libreville at $38 a night including free wi-fi, but they only have three rooms and operate primarily as a service for staff and visitors to Bongolo Hospital. I was lucky enough that when I e-mailed, there was plenty of room for a stray backpacker.

One of the staff affiliated with Libreville Guesthouse and Bongolo—a kind of local fixer—had explained to me exactly what I had to do in the morning if I chose to try the Dolisie route through Congo. I had to go at 6:30 a.m. to the Mouila Transport office. These buses were modern, air-conditioned and not oversold. The bus would not leave that early, of course, but Libreville rush hour traffic was to be respected. If I left too late, I'd end up sitting in traffic for ages, trying to get to the bus.

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.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lazing Around Libreville

I'd been carrying around free sample single-serving sachets of Nescafe "gourmet" coffee for months. A team of sample hander-outers had shoved them at me at Penn Station. Or maybe they'd been shoved at Michael Kraiger. Either way, we were both always being confronted by free samples on the way to work, and kept each other abreast of what was being given away where. The instant oatmeal in my pack I'd purchased before leaving home, knowing I'd need it eventually.

I'd woken up in an actual house, the extremely reasonably priced Libreville Guesthouse. I was the only occupant on the floor, though I could see a dog and a security guard if I looked outside. I had a bedroom and a shared living room, dining room, porch, bathroom, and kitchen (complete with washing machine). But the other two bedrooms were empty. There was no one to share with.

The relief I felt at being in a homey, secluded situation was massive. I made my breakfast. I caught up on e-mail. I padded around in my pajamas. Heaven.