From Congo to Gabon with dust in my mouth
Every decision I make cannot be right. But somehow they are.
I feel I have made so many "bad decisions" lately. Things where I look back and think: "I should have done that differently but I had no way of knowing". And yet somehow all the "bad decisions" accumulate with all the other decisions to make me who I am today and place me where I am. It couldn't have been different.
Should I stay or should I go?!? I was in Brazzaville in Congo last week hoping to cross the Congo River. It's only 3km across to Kinshasa which is the capital of DR Congo - the other (and much bigger) of the 2 Congo's. And although I was being supported from both sides of the river the situation went from hopeful to hopeless.
Timeline for the Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) visa:
Oct. 9th: Turned away by embassy for not being a resident of the Republic of Congo. Told to go home to Denmark for the visa. Red Cross immediately contacts the foreign ministry of DRC and is told that the ministry will call the embassy and "green light me" - but only after receiving an official letter. No problem. A few hours later the letter has been delivered to the foreign ministry. The call is not made.
Oct. 10th (Saturday): The call has still not been received in Brazzaville. The embassy is open to 12:00, but the call is never received. Alternative options are tested but fail. Day marks 2 years (730 days) of constant travel.
Oct. 12th (Monday): Waited all day for the "green light". Was eventually told that a phone call wasn't enough. Please wait.
Oct. 13th: Was informed that a commission at the DRC foreign ministry would make a decision. Meanwhile began visa application for Angola...
Oct. 14th: Told that the commission had not reached a decision. But that this would certainly work - just wait. The Angola embassy turns down my passport photo for wearing a t-shirt in the picture? New photos. And eventually they accept my application - and money ($150).
Oct. 15th: Received a call to come and collect my Angola visa! Good news! Also received news regarding DRC commission during the afternoon. Good news: Commission approved the application! But the message had not been conveyed to the embassy yet.
Oct. 16th (Friday): Message still not conveyed to the embassy? Several meetings. Turned down at embassy. Later told on the phone, by contact at embassy, to speak with the 2nd highest ranking official and rush back to the embassy. But as I arrive to the embassy (20 minutes later) he had already left for the day.
Oct. 17th (Saturday): Contact at embassy does not respond to phone calls. I go to the embassy and meet with the 2nd highest ranking official. I'm told that there is no way I can get the visa without being a resident of the Republic of Congo. I'm told that no information has been received from the foreign ministry regarding this subject. Back to square 1. I'm told that there is no way...
But there is always a way. If I was to become a resident then I can "easily" apply for a visa and eventually cross the Congo River and visit Kinshasa on the other side. Although my visit would probably only amount to a few days which made it seem like a lot of hassle. However the process of becoming a resident could take 2-3 weeks. So together with a friend I made the hard decision to leave Brazzaville and return to Libreville in Gabon. Meanwhile the process of becoming a resident could take place in Congo.
Read on and you will understand my face.
There were several reasons to return to Libreville ASAP. My visa for Gabon would expire on October 20th so I had to return before that or apply for a new visa. Also the boat to São Tomé was due to arrive soon and furthermore my visa for São Tomé would expire on October 26th. More reasons included that I really wanted to see my friend Nav before he returned to India for 2 months. Nav would be flying out of Gabon on October 20th. Besides, I would need to return eventually and with no hope of getting the visa soon I might as well travel immediately.
So on the morning of Sunday, October 18th, at 05:00am I left the house in Brazzaville and headed to Rond-point Bifouit which is where all the shared taxis, minibuses and full size busses leave from. From there I would get transport to Dolisie 300 km away. And from there I could reach the border, cross it and eventually find my way to Libreville in Gabon. An estimated 2 day journey to cover 1,153km (something you could cover in around 14 hours in Europe).
Unfortunately elections were coming up in Congo and there was a fear among many that it would lead to violence and even war. So Rond-point Bifouit was very hectic and it was impossible for me to find transport.
I met Miriam there who told me that she wanted to fly, but that too was impossible. And so was the train! Furthermore Miriam said that there would be no transport the following days so THAT Sunday was the only day if we were to leave!!
The sun made its way further up into the sky and among the many others, Miriam and I became more desperate. I was as usual the only non-local on sight and that wasn't helping me in the situation.
In desperate situations the trucks arrive. They are not exactly a common form of transportation in this part of the world. But they exist and you see them from time to time. It looked chaotic, but Miriam secured us that our names got on the list and eventually we climbed onboard. Half of the truck had been stacked high with luggage. The other half was empty. We got up on the luggage and at first it seemed pretty great. But more and more people climbed up there and eventually it seemed quite hazardous and I risked being pushed off the side so I tied myself in. The empty section filled up with standing passengers. People were looking at me, laughing and pointing. No one had seen this before! I was the spectacle of the day!! Around 10:00am we rolled out with 300 km before us.
We quickly left the paved road and entered a dusty, dirt road. And this continued for a long while. How long I didn't know yet but I would find out. It was very uncomfortable. I once heard that the body can only feel pain in one spot at a time. So if you are in pain in several places then you will only feel the greater pain. I never knew how much pain I was in. If I relieved the pain in the leg then I would feel it on my ribs. Eventually also in my hands for holding on tight to the wooden pole which was holding back some of all the luggage we were sitting on.
You would think I was famous judging from people's reactions when they spotted me on the truck. And at times it was amusing to see people in conversation suddenly stop and stare. Then laugh, point and wave. Often they would be shouting something too. Often they would shout "JESUS" and laugh.
It had its moments. Few...but they were there.
We were moving painfully slow!! And the dust around us was thick!! We were breathing dust and it was filling into our ears, noses, hair, skin, eyes...the dust was everywhere. The "celebrity status" got old pretty quickly and after around 4-500 people had pointed, shouted, laughed and stared I wanted it to stop. But it never came to an end. Then the truck broke and we stopped to fix it. Hours later we continued, but stopped at the next village to do more repairs.
It was quite unbearable for all of us I think. People looked like they were in pain. I was at risk of being pushed off the side and in pain. Everyone's faces looked like they just came out of a mine. We were completely covered in dust. And then something beautiful happened.
The woman behind me started banging her empty plastic bottle towards her hand. She created a rhythm. She started singing. This went on for a long time and slowly more and more people would join her in singing. Suddenly after perhaps 10 minutes I realized that everyone was singing. The sun was setting, the scenery was beautiful and I had a moment of blissfulness which lasted around 5 minutes while the sun set. It was wonderful.
At nightfall we stopped at a small dusty village. We had only reached 100 km and we were not going further. They needed to weld something and took off a tire. They checked the engine and did some repairs. They spread out a large tarpaulin for us to sleep on. I found some okay fish and ate it with a few lumps of manioc. And then I went to bed under the open sky next to around 80 fellow passengers. Not my idea of making good time. But it was explained to me that during the night it was unsafe and that we were at risk of being robbed, raped and murdered. So we would start again the next day at 06:00am.
I don't know if children can sense things which aren't plain to see. But a small girl from the truck came to hold my hand. She might have been 6 years old. She had adorable bright eyes and a cute smile. Then she wanted me to lift her up. She wanted to touch my beard. She wanted to touch my hair. She wanted to touch my skin. Later she just wanted to sit in my lap. Somehow I needed that human contact. Did the girl know or was it coincidence? This went on for about an hour until I gave her back to her mother who smiled at me...and then I went to sleep.
The night was anything but quiet. I woke up several times due to the noise. At one occasion due to a very loud discussion which almost lead to a fight. Then at 03:14am everyone got up to pack their stuff?!? And soon after they got up on the truck?? But why?!
What are they doing up there? Why are we not sleeping?!?
A small group of us stayed on the ground. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Then a fight broke out on the back of the truck. Surreal!! A Wild West type of fist fight!! Then it was over. Then much later we heard the sound of water hitting the ground as if a pipe had burst on the truck? As Miriam and I turned to see what it was we saw a man standing on top of the truck with his pants down and peeing in our direction. There was nothing left for the imagination. We stood about 15 meters away from the truck so we were not a risk...but I sighed and said: "These people are not normal". Miriam nodded silently...
Just a checkpoint: "Everybody down please".
We were on the road for another full day. And the dusty dirt road we were on was following the perfectly newly built highway which was torture to look at. The Chinese work crew was still finishing the road so it was closed. It was like looking at food when you're hungry. When it got really bad they would sing. But after dark everyone was to tired even for that. At 11:00pm we finally reached Dolisie. 300 km of pain and it had taken 2 full days!!
The good road which was next to us almost the entire 300 km.
I parted with Miriam who was on her way to Congo's port city of Pointe-Noire where her family lives. And I might see her there some day in the future. I spent the night in Dolisie and got a full 4 hours of sleep until I continued to a taxi terminal and found a shared taxi. Various forms of transport got me towards the border and in the process I met Jacqueline who was on her way home to Gabon. So we teamed up. But we reached the border so late that it was better to stay there and sleep and cross the next day. There were no restaurants at the border but there was a kiosk. So we made a deal: I would pay for the groceries and she would do the cooking. Lucky for me as she is a cook ;)
45 km on a motorcycle taxi. Just a part of the journey.
The next morning at 07:00am an old man with a very broken pickup truck would transport "Jackie" and me, and 3 others, the 48 km between immigration in Congo and immigration in Gabon. That's an unusual distance! But it was similar to when I entered Congo from Gabon a different place 10 days earlier.
Cute kid who climbed up on me in the old mans pickup, pulled my beard and "stole" my hat.
This almost toothless old man increased the volume on Bob Marley who was blasting out through the stereo. At some point I asked him if he understood English and knew what Bob was singing? He replied no with a huge almost toothless smile. Long live Bob Marley and his musical message of freedom and love! :)
I love micro businesses. This man put his Singer to work on my torn pants.
After immigration was done with me it was already 11:00am!! 48 km and 11:00am? But they agreed to accept my visa although it was now October 21st which also meant that Nav had left the day before. I was on my 4th day of painfully slow transportation. It took Jackie and me 2 more shared taxis and a minibus to reach the 400 km to Libreville and arrive around 9:00pm. Boom!!
Before and after. Same pants and same color - but I wore one of them during the 4 days.
That was quite the adventure!! And try to imagine all that I couldn't possibly fit into this blog. My legs are black and blue on the backside. My hands are still sore from holding tight on to the truck. My head is full of pictures and although it was an adventure which would last most people a lifetime it really wasn't an adventure I wanted right now. I wanted efficiency. But I got something else.
Laura and Fabio who are now enjoying Gabons wildlife.
It's good to be back in Libreville. Nav is gone but he had left the keys with 2 other guest: Laura and Fabio from Switzerland. They only stayed one night with me before they continued but it was still great to meet them. And it is another testimony to how great and trusting Nav is. I'm sad I didn't get a photo with him. But the world is large and my road is long so the opportunity may still present itself.
Now I have a few days to organize. The boat to São Tomé is due early next week. Country 99 here we come.
Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - much older now then I should be.
Once Upon A Saga