Marie Javins heads south towards Zaire and is propositioned in a very novel way
"Maybe I should've bought a donkey back in Mali," I thought, depressed as I stared at my Africa map. I was at a guesthouse in Libreville, Gabon, trying to choose between a bad route and a worse one from Gabon to Republic of Congo.
The Franceville route would spit me out onto a rutted dirt track in the north of Congo, where I'd have to wait days to hitch on a truck – if I could find one – to the nearest town with a road. I'd probably pay a hundred bucks for the privilege of hitching, and the truck would surely get stuck in the mud a few times.
The Dolisie route would take me south into Congo, where I could catch the daily truck down a "highway", which was just another muddy track through the bush. I'd end up in Dolisie in the west of Republic of Congo. From there I'd have to choose between a rumored once or twice a week train to Brazzaville and a boat route that skirted around the tip of both Congos via the Atlantic.
All possible routes would ultimately lead me into a dead-end – Angola, which wasn't giving out visas to backpackers at the moment.
I'd probably have to fly over Angola.
But I still wanted to get to both Congos, at least long enough to buy cool Congolese carvings and textiles. At least long enough to use the visas I'd paid so much for.
The daily-truck-to-train route sounded marginally more appealing – it was documented – even though the last traveller's reports through this region suggested that I'd run into bandits calling themselves "ninjas" just west of Brazzaville. But some websites suggested that the bandits were no longer an issue. Or maybe they were...
I shrugged, packed a jar of peanut butter, took a taxi to Libreville's bus center, and caught a minibus headed south into the unknown.
Okay, not the unknown. Not yet. The town of Mouila, Gabon isn't the unknown. It's a transit center eight hours away in the south of the country, the last major town before Ndende, which is where I needed to get stamped out of Gabon before proceeding to the border with Congo.
Two hours separate Mouila from Ndende (measuring in kilometres or miles is pointless as it doesn't account for road conditions). I stopped overnight in Mouila, thinking two hours would be easy to cover in the morning.
The bus driver and conductor asked me where in Mouila I was going.
"Un bon hotel."
They conferred and decided to take up my cause, placing me in a hotel where I was offered chicken, pork, or antelope for dinner... I had the chicken.
The next morning, I headed to the rendezvous point for Ndende-bound transport by 9am.
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 caked 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 materialise. One did after an hour's wait – a 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, did not seem unusual. Both these men carried sacks full of baguettes.
This worried me. I had a jar full of Jif and a squeeze bottle of jam. But I had assumed I could get baguettes anywhere. Maybe not?
I was completely bored by the time the third passenger materialised at 12:30pm. There's an excruciating mind-numbing dullness to sitting on a bench waiting when one is intending to be getting stamped out of Gabon. The dullness happens after one wrestles one's anxiety to the curb, which occurs post-worry. To combat the dullness, I read this week's New Yorker magazine on my Kindle and fantasised about napping.
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 centre of Mouila searching for the second passenger. He was nowhere to be found.
The driver was annoyed and 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 a 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 were 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 as I have a multi-country SIM). They nod – this is understood in all languages – and give me theirs. The one time I slipped up and gave the young woman at reception in a Nigerian hotel my number, my phone rang three times over the next 48 hours, but no one was there.
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, though for the moment, 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 weirdo.
Or maybe he was.
About 20 minutes later, I noticed Vincent was weakly digging around in his bag. 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 was he up to? I glanced over. He slowly, meaningfully lifted his hand. He'd placed a wrapped condom on my daypack.
I yanked my 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?
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.
We finally reached Ndende at 2pm.
Only an hour to wait until the immigration office's lunch break was over.
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