Congo Republic - I spent my first night at the police station
Don't let this blog discourage you from traveling in Central Africa. A journey here is worth it.
I left some of my belongings in Libreville (Gabon) before I left the outstanding hospitality of Nav's home. The plan is to return to Libreville in order to visit the 2 countries I left behind: São Tomé & Príncipe and Equatorial Guinea.
There is a train that runs from Libreville to Franceville and Franceville is not far from the Congolese border. There is no online reservation so I had to make it to the station in order to buy a ticket. It's a bit of a hassle just to get there but completely manageable. There were 2 lines open: 1 for 1-2 tickets and the other for 5 or more tickets. So I got in line for the 1-2 tickets queue. There was only around 15 people in front of me. After about an hour of standing in line I felt convinced that I had forgotten something. An hour is a long time to stand in the same place and observe people. And nearly everyone had a piece of paper in their hand. I found a way to ask the woman behind me in my limited french. Aha! I had to go and get a form at another window and fill it out with my name, destination, preferred class, telephone number and a few more relevant bits of information. It was no problem to step out of line and return.
How did this take 3 hours?!?
2 hours later it was my turn. It took about 4 minutes to expedite me. WHAT TOOK SO LONG FOR EVERYONE ELSE? Anyway, I was told to be there at 2pm the next day and I was assured several times that the train is never late and would arrive in Franceville the next day at 6am.
The next day at 2pm I was at the station. An hour later they slowly started to check ID and let everyone onboard the train. Then another team checked our ID again. The train was in good condition and we we departed on time.
The equator runs through Gabon so it's quite hot. I left my jacket and my sweater at Nav's place. But the air conditioning in the train was set on "penguin" so that made it a little uncomfortable. But the scenery outside was outstanding. So lush, so green, so wild...
The train arrived 2 hours late the next day. Always on time? Right... I travel with a now 2 year old iPhone 5 which I updated with iOS 9.0.2 in Gabon. That gave me a lot of trouble with the screen which constantly froze and made it hard to use the phone. So I didn't upload google maps for where I was going as I usually do. So in Franceville I didn't actually know how far away the border to Congo was? I ran into some dishonest taxi drivers that somehow managed to convince me that there was no other way to reach the border and that it was 5 hours away. Then they charged me an astronomical figure which I would normally laugh at. But I was REALLY tired after the night on the train and I was determined on reaching 99 countries before October 10th to make it: "99 countries in 2 years". It's a good headline and something which could benefit the Saga in order to reach more global attention. The project needs it. Without the attention most people won't have a chance to hear about the Saga and thus they won't get to join. The Saga is en excellent way of seeing the world through a different lens. The worlds media isn't exactly lying to you. But it isn't telling you the truth.
I payed the driver and off we went. But I was hungry so I asked him to pull over after a while. I offered to buy him a cup of coffee and I bought 2 sandwiches for myself. I started eating the first one when the driver, who was sitting next to me, reached out after the other. For a second I thought about stopping him but hesitated because in most countries I have been to in Africa a lot of people have been willing to share food with me. So that benefited the driver.
There were plenty of checkpoints but the border wasn't far away. I realized that I had agreed to pay around 20-30 times as much as what would have been reasonable. I'm an idiot! But a determined idiot. Forward!!
Checkpoints are often corrupt. I always go free...but the drivers MUST pay. No receipt of course.
Now, the border at which we had arrived was spectacularly scenic. And remote! The immigration house was very isolated from civilization. And there was certainly no one there to offer transport. Besides the nearest village, Mbie, in Congo Republic was around 30 kilometers away (along with the Congolese immigration and customs). For an outrageous price the driver offered to take me there. And I really had no other option. I was feeling less and less happy that I had shared my breakfast with this greedy man. Exploitation of a European. It's not uncommon. They all believe that I'm a millionaire and there isn't much I can do to change their mind. So they are happy to help me off with some money. I've been really good at avoiding the high prices but not in this case. Complete damage to my budget. At least it was beautiful around us.
I gave him the money which was also a mistake. You always pay afterwards. What was I thinking? As we got ready to cross the border (immigration was friendly and easy towards me) we were stopped...by the chief of immigration. He told us that I was okay to pass but that the driver needed to go back to customs (15 km back) and pay $20 for a permit for the car. That was my daily budget (which I had already blown several times that day). I tried to negotiate with the immigration officer to see if he could take me with his car. No chance.
Road conditions in Gabon and Congo! Great!
We headed back to customs only to learn that the vehicle correctly cost $20 but that the driver would need to pay $40 for him as well. $60 in total!! Noooo...and this I wasn't ready to do. The driver, who by the way is named Dmitri, had made enough money out of me and didn't really want to take me across the border. So he helped me by stopping a shared taxi which just arrived. A SHARED TAXI!! Public transportation which just arrived from Franceville and cost a fraction of what I had paid Dmitri. I was feeling so dumb. I knew better...but I was in a hurry and was blinded by that. The new driver agreed to take me over the border to Mbie for another sky high price. I knew the price was well over the top but what could I do? And since the new driver, Freddy, had all the customs approvals he needed I would save $20 over going with Dmitri. It sounded like a good deal? And it was now 1pm so I was in even more of a hurry - I needed to get to Brazzaville, the capital of Congo Republic, that day and we were burning daylight.
Since Freddy's taxi was already full, Dmitri and I had to follow Freddy to where he was dropping the passengers off. And for that Dmitri felt that he only needed to return 50% of the money I had already paid him in advance. And that's why I'm an idiot.
Yeah...still smilling...but I also still thought I would reach Brazzaville. So naive...
Finally I was in Freddy's taxi and off we went...but the wrong way? He just needed to do one thing... Freddy certainly wasn't in a hurry and also needed to do another thing and also slowed down to say hi to people he knew on the street. Finally I lost my temper and let him know that I was on a schedule!! It didn't really make him faster. But eventually we were once again in a remote landscape of green fields and there was nothing to slow him down. At the border we were not permitted to pass until the immigration chief returned as he needed to give the permission. Where was he? He had gone to Mbie!!! I couldn't believe it!!! This was not the friendly and helpful culture I had been surrounded by through so many countries. Around 4pm he showed up with a very drunk officer who wanted to see my "mission order" and hold my hand. I held his hand for a while and eventually the sober chief let us pass the border. 697 km to Brazzaville. Oh boy...this was going to get late!! But everyone assured me that the road was good and that it would only take 7 hours. Right; 100 kph all the way? Not likely...
These people bought 2 beers at a time. One for now and the other for in a few minutes...
Freddy dropped me off at immigration in Mbie and left. Mbie is a VERY small place and I had little hope of finding transport in a hurry. Immigration cleared me instantly. Apparently there was a city called Okoyo only 60 km away...and from there I could easily get transport to Brazzaville. Without my map on the iPhone I had to trust these people. But again the price to get there was way too high. I knew it couldn't be that expensive but they knew I had no alternative. I sat down and hoped for a better solution. A white pickup truck was looking like it was getting ready to leave. No one spoke English so I got as much information as I could in French. I think this truck was leaving late...but it would head to Oyo where it would get to around 4am. Was this my best option? A man appeared on a seemingly new scooter and offered to take me to Okoyo for around $30. That trip should cost no more than $5. I declined...the sun started setting and I was sitting among a group of locals who were looking deep into a number of beer bottles. This wasn't helping me. A kid gave me the same offer to take me on his scooter. I tried to negotiate but he was immovable. The sun got closer to the horizon and eventually I gave up. Okay - lets go. The kid proceeded to get a friend: Rodrigue. Rodrigue is definitely a good guy - but his scooter is a piece of sh#t.
Rodrigue. Laughing out loud 5 minutes before the scooter started breaking.
We left but after a short while the scooter started breaking down. The white pickup truck blasted past us. We stopped for repairs in basically every village on the way to Okoyo and it got really dark and really late. Only good thing about it was that I could see a billion stars.
In Okoyo we were flagged by the police who did an ID check on me. And then they proceeded to help me?!? Almost every official I have met has been corrupted in one way or the other. But these guys were really helping me. Enrique headed back and I was placed in a plastic chair under a streetlight along with a sergeant and an officer. They hoped to find a bypassing vehicle and bargain a price for me to get me to either Oyo (where the pickup truck would possible arrive at 4am) or all the way to Brazzaville. It got later and later into the night and there were absolutely no vehicles. Not a single vehicle passed us as we sat there and listed to the crickets. The officer told me I had 2 choices: one was to reach Oyo because a bus would leave from there at 5am and arrive in Brazzaville at 12am. The other was to stop a vehicle and get a lift all the way. Not long after that the officer left to go to sleep. A man approached me in the night and offered to take me to Oyo for $100. Outrageous! I declined. The sergeant and I stayed outside for several hours while the sergeant would catch large grasshoppers and stuff them into an empty coca cola bottle. "They are great as snacks" he said. Around midnight, having seen no vehicles at all, we agreed that there wouldn't be any vehicles until the border opened the next day 90 km from where we were. And then the sergeant invited me to come inside the police station so I could sleep on the floor. And so I did.
Thats the sergeant sitting there. And I sat next to him for hours and hours...
The next morning at 5am the sergeant and I went out to the road again. Eventually the sergeant went for a walk and came back minutes later with a man in a car. Mariotti was his name. What was going on with these names: Dmitri, Freddy, Rodrigue, Mariotti??
I agreed on a price with Mariotti and got into the car with him under the impression that he was going to Oyo for some other reason and brought me along for a price. Then we proceeded to fill the car with passengers and cargo. Oh no? This was a shared taxi!! I had again paid far too much!! Buy I couldn't have known...with a little hope I could maybe be in Brazzaville in the evening but I had lost a day and a lot of money. We headed to Oyo which is city and at the bus terminal I finally got my first meal in 24 hours...and a bus ticket. I was told that the bus would leave at exactly 10:00am. It left at 10:17am which for sure is regarded as precise around these parts. I'm far from northern Europe.
The bus reached Brazzaville around 4pm with no chance for me of visiting the embassy for my visa to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But it was Thursday October 8th so I still had the next day to obtain the visa. Would 1 day be enough?
A great friend of mine, Helle, had booked me a hotel room for 2 nights. Unfortunately I had spent the first night at the police station but I still had one night which was still a pretty great thing. The booking was my birthday gift from last year: "mention a city and a date and I will pay". Excellent gift. So the first thing I did was to find a cyber cafe to find out where the hotel was. And then I found my way there.
The next day at 8am I was at the DRC embassy. They opened the doors at 9am. I was permitted to enter and it was both professional pleasant. Eventually I reached the lady in the visa section and she was patient with me as I explained myself in "French". Finally she made it clear to me that visas are not granted to non residents of Congo. "Go back to Denmark and get your visa at the embassy there".
I was so tired!! So close and yet so far. And how would I solve this? I didn't exactly have tears in my eyes...but almost. So after a while she told me that if I could get a certain form at a certain office then I could get the visa in Congo at the DRC embassy. That gave me hope...but as I left the embassy I realized that the address was in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC.
I went straight to the Congolese Red Cross and was immediately introduced to Marie and Jérémie of the French Red Cross. Jérémie is the head of delegation and he immediately took interest in the project. The French have been great that way! For some reason the French almost always understand the value that this project holds for the Red Cross. Besides...when a man walks though the door and says that he hasn't been home for almost 2 years and hasn't used any flight and that this is his country number 98...well...it makes people listen.
This is the small outpost on "the beach". Very basic as you can see. The head quarters are much more impressive. But looks can deceive: They do amazing work on "the beach".
Soon a joint coalition of the French Red Cross in Brazzaville, the French Red Cross in Kinshasa, the Congolese Red Cross in DRC and the Congolese Red Cross in Congo Republic were all helping out!! That was such a relief from the beginning. I really felt supported. A Red Cross'er from Kinshasa was sent to the office and was informed that the minister would make a call to the embassy in Brazzaville if the Red Cross would deliver the request to him as a letter. The clock was ticking and eventually the letter had been signed, sealed and delivered. But no phone call as it was getting late into the afternoon and the embassy had closed. It had been a long day of waiting, hoping and grinding teeth. But almost miraculously Roger of the Congolese Red Cross, who is an excellent talker, had arranged that we could come by the embassy Saturday morning on October 10th...the day the 2 year anniversary. And we believed that I would get the visa in the morning and get on a boat across the mighty Congo River in the afternoon.
But the minister was in no hurry to make that phone call. He wasn't aiming for a "99 countries in 2 years without flying" headline. He probably went on weekend with his family. So as the hours went by and Roger and I both made our share of phone calls - the embassy finally closed. Now we headed to "the beach" which is the connection point between Brazzaville and Kinshasa. It's where the boats leave from. Perhaps we could persuade the head of the beach to give a dispensation so that I could cross and obtain the visa a few days later? This went on for hours. It had started to rain and I was wet. And I could see Kinshasa only 3 kilometers across the river.
October 10th 2015. Once Upon a Saga's 2 year anniversary. And the day where I have been away from home for 2 years...or 730 days. And I'm 3 kilometers from making 99 countries in 2 years...and headline I hoped could go viral and benefit both the Red Cross and the Sagas aim of changing the perception for the many that like me have been mislead by the media. The world really isn't as we are told. The vast majority of everyone I have met are following Game of Thrones and are playing Candy Crush on a smartphone. "Dangerous countries" are not dangerous. They can in some situations be regionally dangerous. And many countries which have been labeled by the media naturally hold so much more content behind the labels - but what is the content? Who will tell the public? We are unlikely to start investigating on our own.
Oh well, this project aims at reaching every country in the world. It wasn't really a crucial goal to reach any amount of countries within the first 2 years. It was "just" an opportunity. And an opportunity lost. Something else will show up. Right now it looks like I'll reach 99 countries in 2 years and 2 days :)
Congo is beautiful. I'm now hundreds of kilometers below equator and that would be my 3rd crossing during the Saga. What I have so far has been green fields, fat cows, great farmland and a very green and charming capital. I've already made some friends and it will be hard to leave because there is something magnetic about Brazzaville.
The plan is to cross to DRC on Monday, stay for a few days, return to Congo, stay for a few days, travel back to Libreville in Gabon (different route!) and workout exactly how to reach São Tomé & Príncipe and Equatorial Guinea. No country gets left behind! ;)
Saturday night ended with jazz. There's a festival going on right now and I was invited...it cheered me up...a bit.
The Saga might not have a million supporters. But it certainly holds many committed and loyal people which I am great full to bring along. Thank you all! Let's continue and see what brings! :)
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - I know it's confusing, but there are 2 Congo's ;)
Once Upon A Saga