Marie Javin's overland trip across Africa starts to unravel on the train to Brazzaville
I awoke and peeked out of my room at Hotel Gabriella, which I'd crawled into late last night, after the 14.5 hour, 140-mile truck journey from the Congo-Gabon border to here in Dolisie. I vaguely remembered the night clerk being hopelessly inept. He'd taken a basket of keys, then counted the room doors. There were no numbers on the doors, so he had to count from left to right to figure out which door was which.
"Un, deux, trois..."
I wanted to tell him the rooms hadn't moved. Hadn't he done this before? But I didn't dare interrupt as he kept starting over as it was.
I quickly packed up and left at 7am. If there was an eight o'clock train to Brazzaville, I wanted to be on it to continue my trip south all the way to Cape Town. If there wasn't, I needed an early start on whatever Plan B was going to be as I made my way around the world.
At the railway station, Congolese women dressed in colorful handmade matching head wraps, skirts, and blouses kept pushing past me in line, but then the friendly station master spotted me. He motioned me around into his brightly lit, air-conditioned office.
Using a combination of writing, hand signals, semi-English, and semi-French, he explained to me that the train was running late and still had to go to Pointe-Noire on the coast. It would return here at 5:30pm. A first-class ticket was 15,000 CFA.
Deflated, I asked if luggage storage was available in the station. I knew there wasn't, but I was angling for an invite. Which this friendly man cheerily provided.
"Baggage ici," he said, pointing to a dusty cove under a counter, next to an unused stool. I could leave my baggage here until departure time.
I met a college-age Congolese man at a cybercafé after a flash thunderstorm shut down the power. We walked to the road to hail taxis together.
"I live in Ouagadougou," he explained. "I'm here to visit my parents."
Everyone on this coast of Africa seemed to be on the move, working, studying abroad, travelling like me, or going long distances to see their families.
My taxi took me to the upscale Grand Hotel, where I planned to bluff my way in to visit the clean toilets before getting on the train.
But two security guards stopped me at the hotel gate.
"Je vais au Brazzaville en locamotive, je vais au toilette,” I explained nervously.
Sometimes I feel like such an idiot trying to communicate in French. If only someone would ask me to play tennis, I could use those phrases I learned in high school French class.
But one of the security guards was grinning at me. I wasn’t in trouble. Wait – this guy had been on the hellish truck journey with me yesterday! He introduced me to the other security guard. Visiting the toilets was no problem.
I found my way to the train station. The ticket office was gated and the square was empty. Uh-oh.
There was an open gate on the far right side of the station, so I followed some men through it to find an open office that had nothing to do with selling tickets.
"Er, train, quel heure?"
The man behind the desk, gruff and surly, wrote 21:00 on a piece of paper.
I wandered around some more, then returned at 8pm.
The clerk sold me a ticket for first class, smiling, and told me to go to the front of the train to get my seat on the first-class car. He handed me my luggage. He seemed truly delighted that a tourist was going on his train.
As did all the Congolese at the front of the platform. I sat down near two woman, four giant sacks, and a young boy. The boy was both terrified and fascinated of me, and various people stopped to inquire about my trip and my destination. Everyone was super-friendly, but the longer we sat there, the more nervous I became. I rely on moving swiftly, so that people see me but don't have time to react in anything more but the moment. Sitting for a long time in one place makes me nervous. The phrase "sitting duck" came to mind.
An Angolan man approached me and seemed to be asking for money in Portuguese. Then a policeman approached. He shooed off the panhandler, then explained that the train was now due in at midnight. He marched me down the platform to the police headquarters and installed me on a concrete bench right in front, where the police could keep an eye on me.
Fine, I thought. Except now I was at the wrong end of the platform.
A 20-year-old college student sat down beside me and started yammering excitedly in English.
"WhereareyoufromwhereareyougoingItakeEnglishattheUSEmbassyinBrazzavilleIwillgoto universityintheUStheyarehlepingmefillouttheformsIwillgettheTEFLcertificateObamaisgreat whatdoyouthinkofOsamabinLadenkillingIknoweveryoneattheembassyyouwillmeetthemall whenyougettoBrazzavilledoyouknowFiftyCent?"
He was charming.
"Oh and my country Congo? It is awful,” he said. “I need to make a better life for myself."
I noticed he was shivering.
"It is so cold!"
It wasn't the least bit cold to me. If he ever does get to the US, he's going to be in for a shock.
"I predict the train will be in after three hours. We will arrive in Brazzaville at 7pm tomorrow."
I stared at my new friend in horror. This was turning into another epic journey.
"I will... just sleep. Yeah, I will sleep on the train," I said.
Now he laughed at me. "You can't sleep on this train. They will be singing. They will be dancing, and you won't get your own seat. Maybe three people in one seat. Maybe two. I did not buy a seat on the way out. I stood for nine hours. That's why my brother is here with me, see him there? He is going to go get my seat while I bring on the bags."
I suddenly wished I wasn't travelling alone.
A train came into the station and I perked up. "No, that train is from Mbinda. It is going to Pointe-Noire."
A bit later, another train came in. "No, that one is from Brazzaville and going to Pointe-Noire."
The second train's engine was removed for some kind of problem. It disappeared. It never came back, not while I waited. The passengers on the Pointe-Noire train sat in darkness on the track for hours. I suppose one day, sooner or later, they must have continued.
"I will go find my brother now. I hope to see you later."
I dug around in the bottom of my bag for my plastic jacket to protect myself from the light rain that had started. I slung my legs over the pack, and leaned back in my comfy concrete bench.
And waited some more.
The Pointe-Noire train was now very quiet. And then, sometime after midnight, more than 16 hours late, the Brazzaville train finally clanged into the station.
And as one, the entire crowd rushed the train, which was parked alongside the Pointe-Noire train, leaving only a narrow channel between the two.
The most logical thing to do in this circumstance was clearly to risk life, limb, and trampling small children in an attempt to storm the train.
"Good luck," said my pal, who had returned to gather his luggage. "Your car is at the front."
Oh no. I hadn't counted on negotiating a frenzied tunnel of mass hysteria.
I looked left, past the Pointe-Noire train. It extended the length of the station and off into the darkness. Was there a way around the front? What if there wasn't and I went down there and got stuck and the train left while I was trying to find a way on.
I took a deep breath and dove in.
I pushed with the best of them, blocking with my pack. I hugged my daypack of passport and laptop to my chest, occasionally taking my hands off it to block a particularly frenzied passenger intent on plowing down a kid or grandma.
I fought my way through the crowd to the front.
In the mud.
I thought I was doing okay.
At the front, I believed the car said 101 on the side (lights? No, why would there be lights? Did I mention this was all done in darkness?) and I climbed on-board. Now there was light. I could see madness, compartments made for six with ten people and three children, people lying on the floor to mark their territory, top bunks abandoned because they were only exposed metal with no more padding. I’d gotten on a car too early and once I realised it, I was blocked in the corridor from both the front and the back.
And so I pushed on, through spaces I would have had a hard time fitting into even if I hadn't been wearing my rucksack. All I had to do, I thought, was get through this last half a car, and I'd be at my assigned seat. Then... oh no.
A man on crutches was heading down the corridor towards me.
I stopped abruptly and looked for a way to let him past. I tried to back into a door. I didn't fit. I went back the way I came. A man with a huge gut was bearing down on me. I motioned behind me at the man on crutches.
Get out out of the way, I thought. Back into a compartment and let this man pass.
He bellowed belligerently at me. He didn't seem concerned about the man with the crutches.
I was trapped in the corridor now. The crutches man was behind me, the huge-gut man in front of me, snarling away.
"Where exactly do you expect me to go?" I asked in English, which was pointless.
I glared at him one last time, willing him to move. I had no choice. I barrelled right into him. The element of surprise was on my size. My momentum plastered him against the wall.
He bellowed some more and we were stuck momentarily, then I rolled around the man.
He was quiet now, totally surprised. And now I was able to go into an open door that I fit into and let the man-on-crutches pass.
I went back now, this time getting to the bit between the trains. The dark, decrepit steps between carriages were menacing. Just as I stepped out onto one, a military unit barged past me.
"Hut!" Or whatever they were saying. One pitched his bag up from the platform. The one who pushed past me caught the bag and stashed it in what was once a luggage storage area and at the moment was full of bodies trying to stake a claim. The military guys brushed the people aside as another bag flew on. "Hut! Hut! Hut!"
And they scrambled past me like I didn't exist.
Now I finally crossed the small gap between carriages.
First class was a single lit carriage of rows of seats, four across with an aisle down the middle. Shabby but quite decent after what I'd just seen.
I pulled out my ticket. The military guys inspected it. One of them threw my pack into the overhead rack. Another started to direct me to seat one, and then...
A granny was in my seat. No one, not even me, was cruel enough to throw out Granny.
She smiled at us.
"I'm getting off soon," said a younger woman. "Sit here until then and you can take my seat." She patted her armrest. I perched on it.
This wasn't really a good solution, of course. Presumably, the seat I'd been offered would eventually be sold to someone else. Perhaps it already had been.
The soldiers discussed me and decided they'd seen an empty seat somewhere else. A small man shouldered my pack and instructed me to follow him. By now, the space between the cars had been overwhelmed by squatters. They demanded we go around. He jumped off the train and I gingerly followed. We walk to the next car – it was easy now that everyone had settled in – and climbed the ladder back into the train. We walked to the 'empty spot'. But there was no empty seat. It was packed full of men who'd staked their claims during the mad rush to the train.
The soldier sighed and led me back to the first carriage. He threw my bag back up on the baggage rack and put me back on the armrest.
I sat there for a while, until another soldier gave me his seat. This wasn't so bad. Was it?
I looked to my left. Swarms of tiny cockroaches. What time was it, I wondered. The train had been sitting for a long time. I went to look at my phone to see the time and...wait, what?
When had that happened? Was anything missing? I could see at a glance that the slash was in the larger section of my daypack. My passport and money pouch was intact. That was the Kindle and laptop section. I felt the bag – Kindle accounted for. Peanut butter and jam present. Of course I would have noticed the change in weight if my laptop had suddenly disappeared. Only my Zip-Loc bag of peanuts had suffered, and not a peanut was missing. Just the plastic was slashed.
Had I torn it, maybe? I stared at the hole for several minutes. No. Not just the canvas was slashed. This had gone right through the tough webbing as well. And the shape of the gap, the clean slice in the Zip-Loc bag. A razor or box cutter had made this cut.
Glumly, I stared at the bag in a daze. And slowly, it started to occur to me that I was in over-my-head. I knew where this was going – I could feel the anxiety building. If the train left right now, I'd still be on it until Brazzaville.
But it wasn’t leaving now. Or for several hours, perhaps.
I thought about the roaches. The seating problems. The inevitable visit to the toilets. Oh god, the toilets. Imagine the toilets.
I made it through another 40 minutes of waiting, but it was only a matter of time. During those 40 minutes, I imagined the bag-slasher returning once the train was underway, when everyone was asleep and the lights were out.
Not once did I worry about Ninjas, the Pool-region insurgents that were supposed to be the problem with this train. I’d been worrying for two weeks about the Ninjas and if they’d come on the train when I was on it.
There weren't any Ninjas. The real threat wasn't other people. It was my paranoia, now ramping into high-gear.
I tried to subdue the "I have GOT to get off this train" impulse. I managed to keep it to a mild "Yeah, let's go" feeling. I stood up, looked outside. Could I get around the front of the train? Was it more dangerous outside now than inside? My torch bulb had run out a few days ago.
"Pauvre American," said the young soldier behind me. Everyone could see me staring at my slashed bag. What they didn't know was I'd just now made the decision to give up on transiting West Africa without planes. Those of you who might have been reading since the previous MariesWorldTour.com in 2001 know that I gave up on East Africa too, after the Isuzu accident in Ethiopia.
Nothing to prove, I thought. It's just an arbitrary goal.
I stood up, tugged down my backpack, and said goodbye. No one seemed the least-bit surprised. They probably wished they could fly too.
Gingerly cradling my daypack upside down so that nothing fell out, I walked out onto the dark gap between cars.
Oops. I'd stepped on someone.
I felt a hand guide my foot to the space between the man's arm and chest. Another hand guided the other foot to a spot between two men. And then I was free, out on the ladder to the ground. My feet touched mud.
I walked briskly, with intent, to the front of the train. There, I could see a way around the Pointe-Noire train. Pauvre American indeed. I felt sorry for the Congolese. They have to put up with this hell all the time.
And then I was past the train, squishing through the mud up to the station platform.
For a moment, I thought I couldn't get out. But the same little door that I'd entered through at 17:30 was open. I pushed through quickly, hoping to avoid people asking what went wrong.
Out in the square, I felt lighter, but I had a new problem. No taxis hang out between 3am and 4am in the morning when the trains have already theoretically departed.
Three guys were still there, shooting the breeze.
"Where are you going?" One asked.
I shrugged. "Hotel, maybe."
I started walking down the block to Grand Hotel. One of the men caught up with me.
"Here is a hotel," he said. And he had the key.
He opened the hotel and let me in. It didn't look like much.
"How much? I asked.
He scribbled 30,000 on a slip of paper. $60.
"I'm only going to be here a few hours," I said. "For that, I'm going to Grand Hotel."
I left, walked to Grand Hotel. One of my security guard pals let me in.
Two clerks were behind the desk, looking surprised.
"How much is a room?"
That's even worse, I thought.
"Er, that's too much."
"I will call my boss."
He woke up his boss, who said he could give me the room for 48,000. $96?
"Oh come on. That's still too much!"
"Where will you go?" The two guys were worried.
I shrugged again. "Hotel Gabriella, maybe."
I waited outside by the crossroads, and eventually a taxi came by. He took me to Gabriella where I rang the bell relentlessly for the second night running, until the night guard let me in.
He grabbed his basket of keys and led me to the rooms.
"Un, deux, trois...no, wait. Un, deux, trois..."
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