“I need coffee,” I thought. “And food... But mostly coffee.”
8:30 am and I was doing a Groundhog Day-like repeat of yesterday. I woke up in an air-conditioned concrete square in Hotel Gabriella in Dolisie, Republic of Congo. Hadn't I checked out of here? I pulled on all my clothes and padded down the hall to the toilet block in the hotel courtyard.
“There, that's the toilet with paper.”
I needed to figure out what to do, now that I'd fled the train heading to Brazzaville. Did I want to fly? I knew I didn't want to embark on a two-day hellish overland truck journey through the mud. Or did I want to go to Pointe-Noire on the coast? From there, lots of planes flew to Brazzaville, or I could apply for an Angola visa and transit the Angolan enclave of Cabinda to Democratic Republic of Congo. But tourists were struggling to get Angolan visas at the moment, and if I managed to get one, I'd be using a day of a five-day transit visa in Cabinda, which meant having four days to cross all of Angola.
On the bus.
On bad roads.
In a country with virtually no tourist infrastructure.
Clearly, I needed that breakfast and coffee to give this more thought.
I walked through the courtyard to the hotel restaurant, next to the reception area.
I stood there for a moment, baffled. I was alone in the restaurant.
Then a man – maybe the hotel owner – walked in.
"Wait, wait," he said. He motioned for me to sit down.
I waited. After ten minutes, I went back to my room and packed a bit. When I returned to the restaurant, there was still no one there to take an order. I went to pack some more.
The third time I went to the restaurant, a young woman showed up, rumpled but well-manicured, and just out of bed.
"Let's see... I'll have cafe au lait, s'il vous plais, et..."
"No lait," she said.
I looked at her dumbly.
"No lait." She smiled breezily, charmingly at me. Charm didn’t fix the lack of lait.
I stood up, walked to the front gate, and went outside to buy milk.
I looked right. No shops. But to the left, there was... something. I walked towards it.
Oh, a photocopy shop.
Defeated, I went back to Hotel Gabriella, abandoned the idea of breakfast, got my luggage, checked out, and hailed a taxi.
"Gare routiere pour taxi a Pointe-Noire, s'il vous plait." I got in.
I was still uncertain about what I should be doing, where I should go next. I quizzed the driver.
"Ou est la aeroport? Avec planes pour Brazzaville?"
"Aeroport? Or gare?"
I shrugged, not really committed to either the airport or the bus. "Je ne sais pas.”
The driver looked worried. "What's it gonna be?" he said. "Make up your mind." Or maybe he said "Are you crazy, woman?" It was in French. Much of what I understand as I travel around the world is through context.
"I was on el tren last nuit a Brazzaville but tren ne pas bon. So I vais now to Pointe-Noire. I guess." My French-speaking abilities – now mixed with Spanish and English – were ludicrous but I was too tired to try to pretend I was any better at it.
"I will drive you to Pointe-Noire," declared the driver.
What a sweetheart, I thought. But I shook my head.
"Not enough money left," I said ruefully. "Only share taxi."
"OK, but you buy deux place. Four hours to Pointe-Noire." The young driver was firm with me.
At the gare routiere, the taxi driver dropped me off at a share taxi sedan bound for Pointe-Noire and demanded that I have (and pay for) the front seat, both places. Two people normally share the single passenger seat for 7,000 CFA each. I was more than ready to take the whole front seat, but a tall woman was already in it. She wanted to share.
"Sit with me," she said in English.
I did gamely try, but the idea of sitting with a left buttock on the emergency brake for four hours was too much. I was in the mood for refusing to do insane things now that I'd acknowledged my inner wimp and abandoned the train I called the Ninja Express after the self-styled “Ninja” insurgents along the route.
I got out. No, my left butt cheek on the emergency brake was not acceptable.
I needed a better solution than this, a better way to ride in a sedan for four hours. Then... wait.
Was that my backpack in the trunk? Behind SIX LIVE GOATS?
"1,000 CFA for baggage," demanded the driver.
I laughed. I heard a bleat.
"You're kidding." I was pretty far past the point where any politeness or edit functions were still working in my brain. "You want me to pay for my bag to ride WITH GOATS? There are GOATS in the trunk. No. I won't. Get the goats back out. Give me my bag. I want deux place and I don't want my bag to smell like goats. I will go in the next taxi. My bag cannot be in the trunk WITH GOATS!"
Now all the passengers panicked, seeing I had gone off the deep end and would happily sit and wait for hours in order to avoid me on a hand brake and my bag with goats.
That would mean they'd have to wait for another passenger before they could leave. The woman who'd wanted to share with me nearly flew into the back seat.
"It's OK," she said. "Take the deux place."
"It's OK," the driver said. "The goats are no problem. The baggage rides free."
When I looked behind me at the backseat at the four adults and two children, I did feel bad for them all crammed in there. Though I felt worse for the goats. I realised that this wasn’t my home country, that things were done differently here, and that goats had to ride somewhere, but… goats in a trunk?
"It's 14,000 if you buy two places," whispered one of the older women at me, trying to save me $15. She was kind to be concerned, but I was done with ordeal travel for now.
No more. I didn't know what I was going to do when I got to Kinshasa, but I was done with roughing it, done with the idea of suffering through Angola, and done with the threat of being stuck in the mud. The next time I put up with difficult travel, I planned to be in Tibet or India, months from now, after a long rest in Thailand.
Off we drove, four hours across under-construction roads, goats bleating all the way, passing sprawling Chinese camps with dangling red lanterns. Congolese workers with pickaxes and shovels tackled the road while the Chinese operated heavy equipment. The road was only rough in a few places.
And when we pulled into the outskirts of Pointe-Noire, passing an entire section of town with shops solely dedicated to airbrushed shop signs, we stopped and all the passengers dispersed, melting into the landscape. The goats miraculously seemed none the worse for wear.
I couldn't say the same for my rucksack, which was coated in a layer of dust and goat hair.
The driver sheepishly tried to brush my pack off before handing me the filthy bag.
The woman I'd thrown out of the front seat offered to help me check into a cheap-and-cheerful church guesthouse. A wedding, complete with ululating, was going on.
I took a single room with a shared bath. I didn't expect the room to have air conditioning, but I couldn't figure out how to make the ceiling fan work.
I went to the front desk.
"How do I turn on the ceiling fan?"
She laughed gently at me.
"It doesn't work."
Oh. Of course.
Later, I'd walk a few blocks to the town center, which was – surprisingly for an oil town – kind of pleasant. I'd run into an oil worker from Queens, New York. I'd eat yoghurt and consider my options.
Transit Cabinda by land? End up in Soyo, Angola, where I'd have five hellish bus journeys to cross Angola into Namibia? Sleep on the bus or on the urine-soaked ground at a bus station?
Or I could fly.
In an aeroplane.
“The safety records of these local airlines are terrible,” pointed out the oil worker from Queens.
I laughed. “Do you have any idea how I’ve been travelling?”
I’d fly in an aeroplane to Brazzaville, continue by boat to Kinshasa.
Big bad terrifying Kinshasa.
Didn't scare me so much any more, I realised. Plane it was then.
I should have just flown from Dolisie, I thought.
But then I'd have missed the goats in the trunk...
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