When my little travel alarm clock went off at 3:45 am, I felt for the clock next to me on the bed and hit "snooze". Why is it that now I wanted to sleep, after barely resting throughout the night? I'd woken up constantly – afraid I’d miss the blaring horn of the old truck that was going to take me through the mud, away from the border.
There was really no chance of that. I was in rural Republic of Congo, in a tiny border village where almost no one had a car or even a television, where a goat's sneeze would probably have woken me up. Aside from the crickets and frogs and the low hum of the generator that ran the guesthouse fans, nothing stirred.
I pulled on the clothes I'd placed next to me under the mosquito net, unlocked the wooden door to the small brick-block room, and went out into the dark night.
I went back inside until 4, then checked again.
Still no truck.
Now I went back to sleep until 4:30.
At 5, I checked again. This time I paced up and down the village dirt road in the dark. Had I gotten confused about where the truck left from?
Two spiffily dressed men stood in front of the guesthouse now. One of them was speaking into his mobile phone. They both looked uncertain, like they too might be out at 5 am looking for a giant truck to give them a lift. The man on the phone finished his call, hung up, and explained to me (in French) that the truck had a problem and was stuck in the mud.
"We can go see."
Really? I'm in, I thought. Let's go see.
My tiny decade-old Maglite had quit working last night, and changing the batteries hadn't helped. But these two men had a bright torch, which they used to light the way through the puddles and around the mud ridges as we walked two kilometres up the road.
After a few minutes, I started getting paranoid. Why had I followed two strange men out into the mud on the edge of Congo? What if the light went out in the near-total darkness? What if one of us slipped in the mud or tripped over one of these mini-mountains built by years of cargo truck tyres tearing through the dirt?
But then we saw the dark outline of not one but two giant trucks just past the halo of our light. And then the trucks were inside the torch’s circular perimeter, lit up by our intrusion.
A single figure emerged from slumber first, his features taking shape as he materialised out of the dark and approached us.
"Hello," he said in French. "My name is Mike."
Mike was the driver. He didn't say so, but he was obviously in charge. He was bald, wearing a too-large tank top over his beer belly, with low-cut armholes that slung way below his armpits, and he was covered in mud. But in spite of looking like a sleeveless (and dirty) Congolese Mr Clean, he exuded authority.
And humour. Mike was smiling and happy to see us. He shook all of our hands.
Our chatting woke everyone else up. Now other men emerged from the shocking bog of mud that had sucked two massive Mercedes freight trucks into the ground.
These men were unbelievably chipper for people who'd just spent the night in a seemingly hopeless situation in the mud. And they were all caked.
Mike smiled. "We'll be out soon."
No way, I thought. I'd been bogged before in Dragoman overland trucks. This Mercedes was going nowhere fast.
The crew stretched and blinked before passing out shovels and pickaxes. They got to work. Mike climbed into the cab, turned the key, then skillfully rocked the truck back and forth using gears and acceleration. But all he managed to produce was thick, black smoke from the tyres and cranky passengers, who abandoned ship to walk to town.
They must not have known how close to town they were last night, I thought, or they would all have walked.
Nope, the truck wasn't getting out of the mud any time soon. Or maybe soon is relative. Maybe to Mike, it meant eventually.
I watched this filthy scene for a bit, and once there was enough sunlight to walk back to the guesthouse, I announced I was going back to have a nap.
The truck would come to town when it could move. There was still cargo to unpack, and then cargo and passengers to repack before we'd start our 12-18 hour journey south to Dolisie.
At 9:30, a mechanical roar woke me up in the heat of my room. Not the fan, not the electricity – they must have turned off the diesel generator at dawn. But the truck! I jumped up and went outside, and sure enough, there was the Mercedes, triumphantly blazing into town. The crew had spent four hours digging out of the mud.
The guesthouse owner explained to me that the truck would reload right here in front of us. I placed my luggage on the cargo pile, and cowered in the shade on the guesthouse porch, where the owner ran a busy side-business selling phone time.
The truck pulled up and stopped. Mike strode off, loudly announcing something in French that went like this: "Sure, we'll go to Dolisie. But first, I want some food and I want A BEER!"
The mud-caked crew roared its approval. Plastic chairs were un-stacked and spread out for the triumphant warriors, and they all sat down in the guesthouse yard to rice and beer.
Two teenage boys from the village watched them forlornly. One of them had tried to carry my bag for a tip yesterday, but I hadn't let him because one thing I hate more than carrying my bag is arguing over tip expectations.
"I am hungry," said one of the boys to me. "Do you have any food?"
I gave him the rest of the biscuits I’d bought back in Gabon, which he shared with the other boy. Then I remember my loaf of sliced white bread, which was almost stale since I'd opened it last night and had no way to store it properly.
I pulled out my titanium travel spork and showed the boys how to make peanut butter and jam sandwiches. I carry these things on long trips because they don’t spoil and I don’t know how long I’ll have between meals. The boys loved the sandwiches, and I was thrilled because they were delighted. The three of us sat together, sharing one spork, the boys overdoing the spreads of peanut butter to extremes.
The truck crew found this amusing, these two boys using dainty slices of bread and a spork. They teased them in French, but the boys just said back, "This stuff is really good."
An hour later, the muddied truck loaded up its cargo. Mike turned the key and the engine roared. He honked incessantly to let everyone know that he was ready to go. Dozens of passengers had already climbed onto the back of the truck, taking their seats on hard benches and on luggage, storing their live goats anywhere they could find space. Others hurried to clamber up.
Mike motioned me into the passenger seat.
I motioned at Mike to wait just a moment. There was one thing I had to do. I ran to find the guesthouse owner, the funny man who ran this small-and-simple outpost of comfort in this border town in the middle of nowhere.
He looked up from where he was adding credit to phones, next to where he’d run the town bar and satellite football-viewing stand the night before.
He nodded his acknowledgement. I turned and hurried to the Mercedes.
The truck was a long way off the ground. I tossed up my day pack, then climbed in behind it, into the cab with Mike.
230 kilometres to Dolisie. On a normal road, this would take a few hours. On a muddy pitted track?
I’d be spending a long time with my new pal Mike.
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