Wander Woman Marie Javins arrives in Gabon and discovers that it's the simple things that give the most pleasure
What should I eat first, I thought. The baguette or the croissant or the toast?
I'd really, truly had quite enough bread since crossing over from Spain into West Africa two months ago. But I had developed an unfortunate habit of eating every meal on my round-the-world trip as if it were my last. I gorged myself on things I didn't even like because I didn't know when I'd get to eat again.
But, I reminded myself, I wasn't on a long bus journey or in the middle of nowhere. I was stuck in Yaounde, Cameroon all week, waiting on visas. There were nice restaurants right down the road, and my instinct to eat every bread product placed in front of me was not helpful.
After my all-carb breakfast, I ventured down to the Democratic Republic of Congo Embassy to pick up my visa, then moved my passport to the Republic of Congo Embassy for an overnight stamp, before finally turning in my passport at the Embassy of Gabon a day later.
On Friday, I showed up at 1:30 at the Embassy of Gabon, thinking I could smile sweetly at the guard and waltz in through the gates. That's not exactly how it went.
Instead, when I showed up, I found a group of about 20 others waiting for their chance to smile sweetly and waltz in through the gates. I was – unsurprisingly – the only non-African waiting, but I was surprised to see that I was the only woman outside the gate aside from the snack vendor.
I stole glances at my fellow applicants. It was impossible to tell their countries of origin, as they were all dressed similarly in jeans and buttoned shirts. We all waited.
At 15.00, the embassy security guard came outside the gates with a box. He lifted passports from the box one at a time. He opened each, paged through to the names and photos, then called out each name. The passport-owner would then claim his passport.
I could see mine – which is double-sized – way down in the pile. I wanted to point and ask for it, but I forced myself to be patient.
The guard didn't call my name. He saw the USA stamp on the cover and handed my passport straight to me without opening it.
And I was off! After a week of sitting still, I immediately rushed to grab a taxi across town to the transportation hub, where I boarded a crowded minibus.
My goal was to get as far south as I could before dark. I ended up in the small town of Ambam, Cameroon, searching for a hotel in the rain.
On Saturday morning, I got a motorbike taxi to the Ambam bus station. The motorbike driver stuck my backpack on the front of the motorbike, using his knees to stabilise it. My backpack has been transported this way across a dozen countries. It made me nervous originally, but now I knew that this is just how things are carried on motorbike taxis.
We zipped up a dirt road, hitting tarmac at a crossroads, and arrived back at the bus station.
"No, no, not here," said a uniformed man shaking his head at my driver. "You must take her to the cars to go to the border."
Another traveller, a young man from Cameroon, was having the same discussion. We both whirred off to the shared cars two kilometres away, our motorbikes travelling as a convoy.
We were both pushed into a tight squeeze of four across a sedan back seat. Our luggage went into the trunk, and we were headed to the border.
This was tight. Physically, there's no way I should have fit. The man and woman who were already in the car were plenty large enough for the small backseat without two more people being added to the mix. I don't think I was even grounded on the actual seat. I was sideways, my left hip on my neighbour's thigh and my right hip smashed up onto the armrest on the inside of the door. My foot went to sleep. I shifted, causing a chain reaction of everyone shifting.
The journey was short and at the border town, my new friend, who I'd just spent the last hour sitting on, decided to help me. He left his luggage with a friend at a kiosk, and hired two motorbikes to the border.
"Uh..." I wished he wouldn't do that. I knew he was just trying to help, but I'd have to pay for him as well as me. And I'd read something on a blog about having to do things in a certain order.
The two motorbike drivers took us through town and started heading to the border. As we went through the town centre, we passed an immigration office.
"There?" I asked my new friend.
He shook his head.
I'd have to assume he knew what he was doing. But then I remembered the blog I'd read, and also thought back to the locals who'd encouraged me to blaze right through the borders at Benin and Nigeria. It's easy, just walk through!
The rules are clearly different for regional passport holders. But then again, the trick to travelling in Africa is to just go with it. Things work out about three-quarters of the time, leaving a pretty wide margin of error.
Here we are, I thought, when we eventually slowed down and stopped outside a small wooden building. But it was just a police checkpoint. A policeman laboriously wrote down my details and we were off again to the border.
The taxi drivers had delivered us. I paid them for both lifts, mine and my helper's, and they whizzed off, heading back to town. My helper proudly led me up to the passport-control kiosk. And his face fell, as the officer on duty asked him something sharply in French. I got the gist of it, as I'd gotten the gist the last two months in spite of having very little French vocabulary. Predictably, I needed the stamp from that office we'd passed back in town.
We hired two new moto taxis, which out here in the middle of nowhere, commanded twice the prices of the taxis we'd hired in town. We drove back to the police checkpoint, registered my details again, drove back to town, got me stamped out (interrupting several people eating breakfast – I'd left Ambam at the crack of dawn), and went back to the moto taxis.
Now I had to put a stop to this.
"Merci pour assistance," I said to my helper. "Mais... je... vais au frontier solo." Why had I taken German in high school when I could have taken Spanish or French?
I used my hands to wave a kind of blocking motion at his chest. See, you don't need to go back to the border with me. Je vais alone. I can handle this.
He looked relieved and departed. Alone now, I jumped on the back of the remaining moto taxi. Time to drive back to the police checkpoint, register all my details, go back to the border, and get stamped out of Cameroon.
I did, and after showing my passport stamp to the last officer at the last hut in Cameroon (who was also eating breakfast), I walked across into Gabon. To find no vehicles. No share-taxis or private cars. Maybe I should have crossed a little later, I thought. Maybe I shouldn't have crossed on a Saturday morning.
Then, a thump-thump-thumping stereo interrupted my thoughts. A small Toyota had pulled up, its windows down, the driver motioning to me. Did I want a lift?
Why, yes I did.
He was a taxi, although unofficial. A Gabonese woman hurried up... don't leave me! We went through Gabonese formalities. More forms. More hurrying up to wait. More checks. And we were off, zooming to the police station in Bitam, Gabon, for my entry stamp.
"I saw you a week ago on the ferry from Nigeria!"
Stunned, I took a minute to form a response to the man who owned the copy shop across the road from the police station in Bitam, Gabon. And when I did form one, it was lacking in articulateness.
"Yes, from Calabar."
He was right. I started laughing. He laughed too, and then explained why the police had asked him to come across the street to translate for me.
"They want a copy of your visa. Here, I will take your passport and make it for you in my copy shop."
He disappeared across the street and just then it occurred to me to go with him, but as I was walking out the door, a man in studded, zippered, acid-washed jeans stopped me.
"Hey, I saw you in Yaounde. We were both at the embassy to pick up our visas."
And so we had been. I didn't remember the copy shop owner but I certainly remembered this fellow in his flashy-disco jeans. He was still wearing them.
I trotted across the road and fetched my passport along with my photocopy, picking up a bottle of water while I was there. "Do you have any food?"
"No, but there is some down the road." The copy shop owner waved past the bus, which I could see clearly. I hoped it wasn't going to leave while I was still in the police station. But the policeman stamped me into Gabon quickly, and then walked me outside.
'There." He pointed to the bus, Bitam Express. I walked down and bought a ticket.
The bus to Libreville was leaving soon, or maybe not soon. The ticket-seller shrugged self-consciously and encouraged me to go find breakfast.
"Don't go too far though."
I walked down the road toward a few shacks. One of them had a man in front with a stack of grey, cardboard egg trays. Aha! That's the breakfast guy then.
I didn't have the highest hopes for breakfast, but wanted something with caffeine and something edible so that I wouldn't starve.
I pointed to the baguette. The seller nodded. Great. So far, so good.
He held up a finger, then two. Did I want one egg or two?
Even better, I'm getting an egg with my baguette.
Er... it was early in the day. How long has the mayonnaise been sitting out? Ah, what does it matter, I thought. Cheap mayonnaise isn't real mayonnaise anyway, and probably isn't even perishable.
He smashed a hard-boiled egg into the baguette and spread it around, then covered it lightly in mayonnaise. Like a devilled egg on a baguette. Not bad. Not bad at all.
"Do you sell Coca-Cola?"
He shook his head, and then the man who owned the kiosk behind him scampered down the road, indicating I should wait there. He went and got the coke for me, from another shop.
I took my baguette and coke and went back to the bus garage. There was a short concrete pillar nearby, an improvised table for this excellent breakfast.
I wouldn't get more food until sunset, when the bus stopped at Ndjole, a wild-west style logging town. Before then, I'd turn a little green with the other passengers as the bus wound through the mountainous forests of Gabon, along dizzying switchbacks. At one point, we'd be stopped by an unexpected roadblock – a broken-down pick-up truck in the road. The male passengers would gather as a team to lift the truck off of the road so that the bus could pass, while I squatted behind the bus with four Gabonese women at a makeshift communal loo. The forest here was dense – there was no sneaking off into the bush.
But for now, I munched slowly and waited. Bread products suddenly seemed a lot less repetitive. Mmmmm, fresh breakfast on a pillar on a sunny morning in a border town in Gabon.
What could be more perfect?
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