Saturday, May 7, 2011

Turning Pointe

Need coffee.


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.

On the bus.

On bad roads.

In a country with virtually no tourist infrastructure.

Clearly, I needed that breakfast and coffee to give this more thought.

I walked through the courtyard to the hotel restaurant, next to the reception area.

I stood there for a moment, baffled. I was alone in the restaurant.

Then a man—maybe the hotel owner—walked in.

"Wait, wait," he said. He motioned for me to sit down.

I waited. After ten minutes, I went back to my room and packed a bit. When I returned to the restaurant, there was still no one there to take an order. I went to pack some more.

The third time I went to the restaurant, a young woman showed up, rumpled but well-manicured, and just out of bed.

"Let's see...I'll have cafe au lait, s'il vous plais, et..."

"No lait," she said.

I looked at her dumbly.

"No lait?"

"No lait." She smiled breezily, charmingly at me. Charm doesn't make up for no lait. 

I stood up, walked to the front gate, and went outside to buy milk.

I looked right. No shops. But to the left, there was...something. I walked towards it.

Oh, a photocopy shop.

Defeated, I went back to Hotel Gabrielle, abandoned the idea of breakfast, got my luggage, checked out, and hailed a taxi.

"Gare routiere pour taxi a Pointe-Noire, s'il vous plait." I got in.

I was still uncertain about what I should be doing, where I should go next. I quizzed the driver.

"Ou est la aeroport? Avec planes pour Brazzaville?"

"Aeroport? Or gare?"

I shrugged. "Je ne sais pas." F*ck if I know, I thought.

The driver looked worried. "What's it gonna be," he said. "Make up your mind." Or maybe he said "Are you crazy, woman?" It was in French. Much of what I understand is through context.

"I was on el tren last nuit a Brazzaville but tren ne pas bon. So I vais now to Pointe-Noire. I guess." (Yes, my French is ludicrous but I was too tired to try to fake it.)

"I will drive you to Pointe-Noire," declared the driver.

What a sweetheart. But I shook my head.

"Not enough money left," I said ruefully. "Only share."

"Okay, but you buy deux place. Four hours to Pointe-Noire." The young driver was firm with me. He knew best.


At the gare routiere, the taxi driver dropped me off at a share taxi sedan bound for Pointe-Noire and demanded that I have (and pay for) the front seat, both places. Two people normally share the single passenger seat for 7,000 CFA each. I was more than ready to take the whole front seat, but a woman was already in it. She wanted to share.

"Sit with me," she said in English.

I did gamely try, but the idea of sitting with a left buttock on the emergency brake for four hours was too much. I was in the mood for refusing to do insane things now that I'd acknowledged my inner pansy and abandoned the Ninja Express.

I got out. No, the left butt check on the emergency brake was not acceptable.

I needed a better solution than this, a better way to ride in a sedan for four hours. Then...wait.

Was that my backpack in the trunk? Behind SIX LIVE GOATS?

"1,000 CFA for baggage," demanded the driver.

I laughed.

"You're kidding." I was pretty far past the point where any politeness or edit functions were still working in my brain. "You want me to pay for my bag to ride WITH GOATS? There are GOATS in the trunk. No. I won't. Get the goats back out. Give me my bag. I want deux place and I don't want my bag to smell like goats. I will go in the next taxi."

Now all the passengers panicked, seeing I had gone off the deep end and would happily sit and wait for hours in order to avoid me on a hand brake and my bag with goats.

That would mean they'd have to wait for another passenger before they could leave. The woman who'd wanted to share with me nearly flew into the back seat.

"It's okay," she said. "Take the deux place."

"It's okay," the driver said. "The goats are no problem. The baggage rides free."

When I looked behind me at the backseat at the four adults and two children, I did feel bad for them. Though I felt worse for the goats.

"It's 14,000 if you buy two places," whispered one of the older women at me, trying to save me what to her was a lot of money. She was kind to be concerned, but I was done with ordeal travel.

No more. I didn't know what I was going to do when I got to Kinshasa, but I was done with roughing it, done with the idea of suffering through Angola, and done with the threat of being stuck in the mud. The next time I put up with difficult travel, I planned to be in Tibet or India, months from now, after a long rest in Thailand.

Off we drove, four hours across under-construction roads, passing sprawling Chinese camps with dangling red lanterns. Congolese workers with pickaxes and shovels tackled the road while the Chinese operated heavy equipment. The road was only rough in a few places.

And when we pulled into the outskirts of Pointe-Noire, passing an entire section of town with shops solely dedicated to airbrushing shop signs, we stopped and all the passengers dispersed, melting into the landscape. The goats, who had been steadily bleating in the taxi's trunk for four hours, miraculously seemed none the worse for wear.

I couldn't say the same for my backpack, which was coated in a layer of dust and goat hair.

The driver sheepishly tried to brush it off before handing me the filthy bag.

The woman I'd thrown out of the front seat offered to help me check into a bizarre (but cheap) Swedish Evangelical guesthouse. A wedding, complete with ululating, was going on.

I took a single room with a shared bath. I didn't expect the room to have air conditioning, but I couldn't figure out how to make the ceiling fan work.

I went to the front desk.

"How do I turn on the ceiling fan?"

She laughed gently at me.

"It doesn't work."

Oh. Of course.

Later, I'd walk a few blocks to the town center, which was—surprisingly for an oil town—kind of pleasant. I'd run into an oil worker from Sunnyside, Queens. I'd eat yogurt and consider my options.

Transit Cabinda by land? End up in Soyo, Angola, where I'd have five hellish bus journeys to cross Angola into Namibia? Sleep on the bus or on the urine-soaked ground at a bus station?

Or I could fly.

In an airplane.

Fly in an airplane to Brazzaville, continue by boat to Kinshasa.

Big bad terrifying Kinshasa.

Didn't scare me so much any more. Plane it is then.

I should have just flown from Dolisie, I thought.

But then I'd have missed the goats in the trunk.

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