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.

Other passengers took ages to materialize. One did after an hour's wait—an strange scrawny older man dressed completely in white. When he wasn't slowly lifting his legs into the backseat and then out again—he seemed quite frail—he was talking to himself. The other passenger, who had arrived before I did, seemed normal. Both these men carried sacks full of baguettes.

This worried me. I had a jar full of Jif and a squeeze bottle of Welch's Grape Jelly. But I had assumed I could get baguettes anywhere. Maybe not?

I was completely bored by the time the third passenger materialized at 12:30. There's an excruciating mind-numbing dullness to sitting on a bench waiting when one is intended to be getting stamped out of Gabon. The dullness happens after one wrestles one's anxiety to the curb, which occurs post-worry and fury. To combat the dullness, I read this week's New Yorker on my Kindle and wished there were a place to take a nap.

Something I didn't understand happened when the driver finally decided it was time to leave though…we combed the town looking for Passenger #1, who had vanished. Passenger #3 was there, also carrying his own sack of baguettes. The two boys whose job it was to stand in the back of the truck raced around the market, the post office, and up and down the center of Mouila searching for the second passenger. He was nowhere to be found.

The driver was annoyed but wanted to leave. This was novel—transportation leaving when it wasn't (over)full almost never happens in this part of the world. But I was glad…I didn't want to be crowded in, shoved up against the weird man in white. Not only would my red-dirt stained clothes mess up his white polyester outfit, but also, no one wants to be shoved up against a weird guy who is talking to himself.

We drove out of town past a Chinese crew building the road. As we drove, the man in white fingered his rosary and chatted to himself. The driver and other passenger ignored him, as did I.

Eventually, man-in-white handed me a slip of paper. This was a blank page he'd torn out of his address book, and it had his name (Vincent) and phone number on it. I politely thanked him—people are always giving me their phone numbers here. This is a common way that people are polite in East and West Africa, like we exchange business cards at home. You exchange phone numbers here though you know you'll never use them. My response to inquiries for my number is to say "No SIM," (which isn't true). They nod—this is understood in all languages—and give me theirs. The one time I slipped up and gave the girl at reception in a Nigerian hotel my number, my phone rang three times over the next 48 hours, but no one was there.

My phone never rings. My friends don't even understand how to make an international call, and my colleagues in Kuwait can never keep track of which number to call me on. My phone has not rung a single time on this trip—aside from right after I gave the Nigerian girl my number.

When my phone rang in my room in Calabar, Nigeria, I imagined her on the other end saying "No, I have an American friend. Listen, here's her accent."

Vincent asked me where I was going. I mean, I think that's what he asked. He asked me in French.

"Dolisie," I said. That's my eventual destination, the major crossroads town south of us in Congo. For the moment, though, I was heading to the border, where I'd stay overnight on the Congo side before embarking on a day-long truck journey through the mud to Dolisie.

Vincent looked in his tiny address book, paging through slowly until he found the name and phone number of a hotel in Dolisie. He wrote this on the back of the slip of paper he'd put his phone number on. Perhaps I'd misjudged Vincent. Perhaps he wasn't a total freak.

Or maybe he was.

About twenty minutes later, I noticed Vincent was weakly digging around in his little man-purse. Trying to be surreptitious. Discreet. I didn't know what he was looking for, but I doubted this could be good news for me.

Whatever, I thought, and looked back out the window at the huge green trees around us. But out of my peripheral vision, I could see that Vincent then casually put his hand on my daypack, which was on the seat between us.

Eh? What the hell was he up to? I glanced over. He slowly, meaningfully raised his hand. He'd placed a wrapped condom on my daypack.


I yanked me pack towards me, loudly saying "NO."

He palmed the condom without comment and slowly moved his hand back to his man-purse.

Gross. I went back to looking out the window.

I almost laughed too. This frail old man who talked to himself and could barely get his legs up onto the seat of the truck was propositioning me, based on nothing more than sitting on the same seat and offering me the name of a hotel? What a freak.

But I can't say that it didn't bother me. What a strange thing to do.

The other passenger and driver never even noticed. But I was prepared to make a fuss if Vincent hadn't backed off.

He tried to make small talk a few more times, pointing out trees or birds he thought I should look at. I nodded but did not engage.

At one point, we could see a cyclist ahead. The driver glanced at me in the rearview mirror.


What? Really? Another crazy cyclist? The other passengers and the driver got excited. Like everyone else all over the world, Africans love crazy people on ridiculous epic expeditions. They think it's hilarious. They love my story when I tell them what I am doing. They love crazy people on bikes even more.

We honked and slowed down. The cyclist was a white man in his late twenties or early thirties. He just nodded back until he saw me, and then he had a look of familiarity and surprise. I waved heartily. I couldn't tell his nationality—he didn't have any visible flags or markings. So he's probably not Canadian.

When we finally reached Ndende at 2, the driver dropped me off at the police station, so that I could get my immigration stamp.

I peed in the police station's backyard—what else could I do?—and waited for someone to return from lunch.

At 2:30, a deputy showed up. Great! He did the formalities, had me fill out a form, and stamped me out.

"Now you must wait for the chief."

"But I must go to the frontier."

"Not possible now. You must go to a hotel and go in the morning. There is a bus in the morning. Now there is no transport. And the border closes at 5:30."

That's why I'm in a hurry, dumbass, because while it's only 48 km to Congo, I need to search for private transport. Wait, really? 5:30? What will I do if I get there and can't get through?

"I will go to Cecado and look for a ride there." A guy whose blog I've been reading had gone to Cecado (the supermarket which is also a good place to hitch) and scored a lift before even reaching it.

He looked at me blankly. I guess he wasn't the deputy who'd tipped off the blogger about the Cecado option.

By 3, I was getting annoyed. Why did I have to wait for the chief? By 3:30, another deputy had shown up. They had a short discussion, the gist of which was, "Let her go. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"You are free to go," said Deputy #1. He walked me outside and pointed me in the direction of Cecado.

It really was too late now, and I should have gone straight to a hotel. But here's why I was anxious to leave.

The daily truck from the border leaves at 5 a.m. every day. Every day might mean every weekday, or might literally mean every day. I wanted to be on the Thursday truck. This gave me a little leeway if things went wrong, as there was still the Friday truck. Plus, I knew the train from Dolisie to Brazzaville left twice a week, and one of those days was Tuesday. Logic suggested that Friday might be the other day the train left.

If logic had nothing to do with it, and frequently it does not, then I had several options. I could go by truck the four hours to the beach town of Pointe Noire, and from there apply for a transit visa to transit Cabinda (Angola) to Democratic Republic of Congo, and from Cabinda see if I could get to Boma, to Matadi, and up to Kinshasha, or I could just get the boat to Angola, and start the arduous trek south.

That would be rough indeed. Standard transit visas for Angola are five days. One is used on Cabinda. Four days to cover a rough-road country with few buses is obviously just four days of bus and truck hell, with not even a second to see the country. One blog I'd read had the guy just sleeping on buses over and over.

Some people have had luck extending their transit visas. Some had not. I didn't care—if transiting Angola meant risking four days of non-stop bus hell and not seeing a damn thing, I'd already decided I'd forget Angola and fly from Kinshasa to the other end of DRC, and walk over the border to Zambia.

Southern Africa is a breeze compared to where I am now. Zambia has scheduled buses, there's a scheduled high-end South African coach that goes from Victoria Falls to Windhoek three times a week, and from there, it continues on to Cape Town.

I had already been fantasizing about using Swakopmund's laundromat for weeks, and I was daydreaming about the comfy rooms at Chameleon in Windhoek and at Cape Town Backpackers in…well, you know. Adding Zambia to the mix just meant a nice dinner at Fawlty Towers in Livingstone, maybe a little trip to see some elephants, and I might even rent a car and go into Etosha National Park in Namibia to hang out at the game watering hole and watch the animals.

Mostly, I was daydreaming about a little coffee shop in Swakopmund. They make a nice breakfast using eggs and potatoes, with no bread in sight.

I thought about all this as I walked to Cecado, where I was quickly informed by a group of men hanging around that I should go to a hotel and take the morning bus.

Shit. I was starting to believe them. Clearly, I should have stayed in Ndende instead of Mouila last night. Let this be a lesson to those of you who stumble over this blog while researching your own trips.

Today was a low. I'd sat bored for hours, been propositioned by a freak, sat bored some more, and now I was going to have managed only two hours of movement in a single day.

The supermarket owner came up with a plan. His friend, who was guzzling Guinness next to him, would borrow his motorbike and take me to the border for 20,000 CFA, or $40.

"No, that's too much," I said. "How much is a hotel?" I was starting to warm to the idea.

"Okay, 15,000 plus 2,000 for petrol."

That's hardly a bargain. Nevertheless, I said yes. My driver laughed at the insanity of this plan they'd hatched and had another Guinness.

I bought supplies for my trek—a loaf of bread (there were indeed no baguettes), two Cokes to use as coffee substitutes if I got stuck on the truck overnight in the middle of a mud road, three bottles of water, and  some cookies. I already had peanuts, the Jif, the jelly, cashews, and some dried mango.

Warning flags were dropping in my head, but I ignored them. The driver—who did tell me his name but I instantly forgot it—put my backpack in front of him, like every moto-taxi has done since Mali. I wore my daypack (which holds my money, passport, laptop, Kindle, and iPhone), and we were off.

Not for long though. We got petrol, then went to put air in the tires.

"You should have her wear the backpack so you can see the gauges," said the mechanic.

Oh no.

Everyone standing around nearby agreed this was a good idea. I tried it out. The weight of the backpack gave me no stability. If the driver stopped suddenly, I'd crush him. If he started suddenly, I'd fly off the back.

I'd have to hang on tight.

Our next stop was the driver's home. He honked and honked until a teenager—his brother? Son?—materialized with his passport. We'd be crossing checkpoints.

An adult came out as well. He suggested my backpack go on the front of the bike. The gauges discussion was held again, and it was again determined that I should wear my backpack.

Now we really were off, zipping down a dirt track at an alarming, terrifying speed.

Mortified. I am going to die for sure. I should have stayed in a hotel. 

I alternated between holding the man's waist and hanging onto the bike's back, depending on whether I thought he was slowing down or speeding up.

This is terrifying, I thought. I wondered how they'd get me to Bongolo Hospital if we went down on this dirt track.

Every time we passed a person, a car, or a house, the driver beeped the horn incessantly. To the point where he wanted people to see him, not to get out of his way. I was starting to suspect that he hadn't had a female tourist on a motorbike behind him before.

Thirty kilometers in and we finally stopped at a tiny village. More a cluster of huts. I stiffly extracted myself from the motorbike and took off the backpack. Ouch. Sore.

The driver drank a third of my supply of water, peed onto a bush, then honked the horn until an older woman appeared out of a hut. They clasped hands, and then she shook my hand. She told me she was his grandmere's sister. He said she was his tante. Whatever she is, she was related to him. Other women appeared, whereupon a raging debate went on about their relationship and what the word would be in English. I looked at the time on my phone. 4:30. Could we get a move on here?

"Only 15 more kilometers," said Tante, encouragingly.

Finally, we pushed on. Our next stop was a toll gate, where the driver told the girl taking the money that we were married and going to Congo. She looked at me and asked if this was vrai. He told her I don't speak French. Which is true, but my single year of drilling in French in tenth grade was enough for me to get the gist what he was saying.

While he was busy bragging, I shook my head no at the girl. She laughed and kept her mouth shut, to let him have his bragging. The driver, to punctuate his point, casually dropped his hand onto my thigh.

Will this day never end?

Our next stop—and by now I was secularly praying for stops, as the backpack was too heavy and I was sore—was a little outdoor bar.


The travel gods were with me. He didn't order a beer. One of the bar's customers told me he'd see me later. He was the policeman who would be checking me in on the Congolese side of the border.

I could barely get back on the bike at this point, but we made it to the border. A Gabonese man took down my details—slowly—and then imprinted more stamps into my passport next to the ones I'd gotten in Ndende.

Back onto the bike. Back down the road.

Our next stop was the customs office for Gabon, where a man looked at my stuff while I asked him what on earth was the point of looking at my stuff when I was leaving the country.

My stuff bores any Customs person who asks to have a look. Just a bunch of packing cubes full of clothes and shampoo. Nothing interesting at all. (Most of them don't think to look in my daypack, which holds all the goodies.)

When we finally reached the gate to Congo, the driver just told me to duck and drove under the gate.

"No!" But he wasn't hearing me, or wasn't interested in what I had to say. My head cleared, I made sure of it, but my backpack derailed the barricade. More importantly, my daypack flew off the front. I wondered how my laptop felt about today's pounding.

When the driver stopped, I threw myself off the bike, dramatically declaring "No more. I will walk."

Lucky for me, I happened to declare this right in front of customs on the Congo side.

This customs guy was slow but methodical. He did go through my daypack, and told me the laptop was no problem to bring in. He also asked where my car was. I laughed…the blog I'd read had described this guy as baffled when the travelers had said they had no carnet because they'd had no car.

He instructed me to visit the police up the road, then get my other immigration stamp on the left, then I could head to the auberge. He was slow but helpful.

Not surprisingly, there was no one in the police hut. He was probably still at the bar. I went to the next office, nearly getting run down by a guy tearing by on a motorbike. Ah. My driver, heading back to Ndende. He honked fifty or sixty times before disappearing under the barricade.

Dusk was nearly gone now, and darkness was encroaching. The immigration guy held his phone up to my passport to illuminate the details. I will never know if the border really closes at 5:30 or if it just closes when there's no one else coming through. We were well past 5:30 by now.

Thud went the stamp.

That's it. I'm in Congo. 

To hell with the police, I thought. He knows where to find me. There's only one auberge in town.

The immigration guy pointed me to the auberge, a long brick structure with two rows of rooms and two squat toilets in the back. Showers were two brick closets where you could have a bucket of water delivered. The rooms had mosquito nets, fans, cheery sheets, and locking doors.

The owner is quite the entrepreneur, running the auberge, a sideline of selling phone credit, and he also runs the village bar where he has football games come in over a satellite link. Rows of plastic chairs were lined up in front of the TV at game time. Not for me though…even if I liked watching sports, I had an appointment with a bucket of water and the brick closet.

Before I went to bed, I had one more question for the auberge owner, who spoke plenty of English (lucky for me).

"Quelle heure est la…truck…pour Dolisie?"

"The bus? You want to know the time of the bus?"

I laughed. "Yeah, the bus." Hilarious. A giant Mercedes was the local bus.

"Five. But sometimes four."


"Will he honk?"

"I'll tell the driver to honk."


And with that, I retired to my brick box and cozy mosquito net. I could hear the generator going, and so we had electricity for the fans as well as the soccer. I made some peanut butter sandwiches for tomorrow's trip, set my alarm for 3:45, and was out.

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