• Back to reality February 28th, 2011

    “A traveller journeys not without knowing whither he wanders” (H M Stanley)

    I shall miss the food more than the work. For the last two weeks I’ve eaten better than I might do for a very long time. Sushi in Central Africa I tell you! It was the only thing I really looked forward to whilst holding a tape measure in the scorching sun, wondering what the hell I was doing. That and the interaction with the children, who curious as ever wanted to know more about the schools that were being built for them.

    The Japanese from this construction company remained as inscrutable as ever, and I found myself having to explain to many local staff that their culture was just very different. They work hard, communicate very little, and generally take very long to get to know. Take Suzuki san for example. This is the chap I worked alongside for two weeks. He barely said a word to me, and when he did it was often through Hiromu, my Japanese cycling companion. Locals greeted him in French and tried to shake his hand. Children occasionally shouted Ni hao, assuming he was Chinese. His attention was elsewhere. Was he purposefully ignoring these people? Was he just shy? Did he realise it was rude not to make eye contact, greet and shake hands with important locals? I sometimes imagined how he would react if I threw a bucket of water in his face. Would he flinch? Shout at me? Retaliate? He has been here a month and will stay for up to another year. I doubt he will learn a word of French or Sango, the local dialect. And even if he does, it will be a rare moment when he utters a word. For all I know he might speak fluent English.

    At work in Bangui

    For all my frustration with the job and failure to fully comprehend the Japanese mentality I shouldn’t complain. Yes the work was dull as hell, but the Japanese were paying for my food and lodging, and providing beer money that will probably last until I reach the Indian Ocean. For the others – the local employees, the situation was different. For two weeks work I got paid what many would earn in about 3 months. And lets face it, they were doing far more actual work than me and probably supporting various family members through that measly wage.

    Anyhow. Now it’s back to reality for me too. Tomorrow I hope to load the bike on a canoe and cross the Ubangui river, which divides Bangui and the Central African Republic from Congo DRC. Apparently the route I’m planning to follow used to be popular amongst overland travellers through Africa, but that was more than 20 years ago. Gemena looks like the first town of any size as I head south towards the Congo river. If there is Internet there you’ll know about it, otherwise it may be some time before I get to write here again.

  • Lost in translation February 20th, 2011

    Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would say ‘when I grow up I will go there’. (Joseph Conrad)

    My entry into the Congo has been delayed by a Japanese construction company here in Bangui.  They’re helping to build schools – eleven of them I think. One week down with the job and another to go.

    I almost quit on day 1, and again on day 2. Well it’s not particularly interesting to hold a metal pole for most of the day whilst a Japanese man signals with his left or right arm for you to move it to the correct position. He is looking through a computerised instrument that gives him numbers, which he then yells out in Japanese as a distance.

    To observe this man at work is interesting. How he manages to ignore the children that invade his personal space, the litter, the smell, and scenes of daily life that are a world away from his home surroundings in Japan is quite remarkable. Inscrutable is the word that fits the bill.

    To work with this man is both frustrating and hilarious. Communication is not one of his strong points. I’m reminded how it was to live in Japan and work in a Japanese school, which I did for two years. I don’t think I could do it again.

    Were it not for the free lodging, food and probability of a bit of cash after two weeks I might have pushed on alone to DRC and left Hiromu to reconnect with his fellow countrymen and culture. But I’ve decided to stick it out. The Congo is one country I really want to do with company.

    On the job

  • Journal entries from the Central African Republic February 12th, 2011

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    ” A traveller who has just arrived in a new country where everything is new to him is held up by the difficulty of making up his mind” (Andre Gide: Travels in the Congo)

    I continue to keep a hand-written journal of my journey and may include a few more of these excerpts as blog posts over the coming months. Here are several entries from the last 10 days.

    02/02/11: Distance cycled 44km.

    Location Godeambole:   04°04.274N  016° 05.157E

    Don’t get moving till after midday on account of Hiromu disappearing to buy a new shirt. Someone stole his green Cameroon football shirt from the clothes line outside the hotel last night. I made sure to bring my washed clothes inside before going to bed – dry or not. Could tell the place wasn’t 100% secure.  Management unable to do much, but surprisingly they pay or half pay for another. More than an hour before Hiromu returns with a new outfit – red short-sleeved top and matching sweat pants with the Central Africa Repub flag and colours on. I use the time that he’s away to read more of the hardback I’ve been lugging from Limbe and trying to finish – Congo Journey.

    We now have a clearer route for Bangui planned out. Spoke with the British Consul  in Bangui on the phone last night. He seems to know the minor road I’m looking at on the map and gives good advice. There is a much shorter way to Bangui – 450km rather than 600km.

    Buy a few more supplies before leaving – maggi stock cubes and sugar. Wanted to get pepper, but unavailable. Very little to buy here.Take lunch of maize couscous and groundnut sauce before leaving Berberati. Also have CAR flag painted onto the bike – pretty amateur looking, but somehow original. Like this flag – distinctive from the usual red, green, yellow striped ones from west/central Africa.

    Young kid follows us barefoot for several  kms out of the town – determined that we give money. I have no small change, but find a 25CFA coin – only because he follows us for so long that I give in – quite sad.

    Short way out of town comes first check post – passports and vaccination cards and a call for 5000CFA. Again we manage to get away without paying – me saying something to the effect of our visas costing 50,000CFA and Hiromu being his usual clueless self.

    There is no traffic on this laterite track, just locals transporting wood in push carts back towards Berberati. All look very poor and I feel CAR displays more signs and a sense of poverty than any other country to date on this trip.

    We continue to pass many small villages which line the road – all identical palm-thatched huts in front of which people sit. Most peoplelfull of smiles and waves. Incredibly friendly and curious. Somehow the smiles make me feel more sympathy and sorrow. They have nothing and I’m just passing by pretty much carefree.

    Another check post down the road has a large officer in green combat trousers and a vest top that reads ‘Certified Muff Diver’ with a picture of a man going down on a woman. Well that just sets the tone. I can’t take what might be another 5000CFA demand seriously and we’re on our way again.

    Hard to spot a suitable place to pitch the tent, but I sight a football pitch behind a row of huts. Soon have permission from chief and set up camp with usual crowd of onlookers. Lightening breaking in the sky above as I write this – rains not far away. Still not completely sure when rainy season is here?

    Painting the flag

    03/02/11 Distance cycled: 59km

    Location: Wodo: 03° 49.551N 016° 26.860E

    Rain comes during the night. All that lightening being followed by rolls of thunder then a steady rain that stops and starts all night. No downpour as I feared and tent holds out  water well. Makes the night cooler and when I wake the sky is still overcast. As expected Hiromu has the idea that he will dry all his gear before we leave, which is ridiculous as there is too much moisture in the air. He is always so methodical, meticulous and slow when it comes to packing up and loading the bike, taking twice as long most of the time. I use this ‘Hiromu time’ in the morning to read and write journal. Eventually he decides to pack his stuff away wet like me (easier to bring it out to dry when sun is stronger later). Children and few elders come to watch us pack up, including the chief, whom we greeted last night. Sense there is an expectation for a gift, which we don’t have. Nothing said. Must remember to buy Kola nuts when I see them.

    After the rains the roadside vegetation is refreshingly green – dust having been washed from the leaves. Track also without dust, but there is hardly any traffic anyhow. After 10km we arrive in Bania, which is on the map. There is a small market here, but practically no food. I buy a plate of boiled manioc, having already eaten bread and last of laughing cow cheese earlier. Hiromu takes rice, which has clearly been cooked the previous day and looks as appetising as he says it is. Cafe owner seems to regard us with distain. I sense it is Hiromu’s tone of ordering stuff – the “donnez moi l’eau” sounding harsher than “avez vous”.  I say nothing.

    On we go, descending from this small town and crossing a large river (Mambere) with a bridge showing it to have been constructed by a German engineering company – no date. On the map this is but another mere tributary of the Ubangui. It is massive at 100m plus in breadth.

    The track continues to pass some small stunted huts, often strung out on the road for several kms before the bush returns. Early in the afternoon we reach a junction where the road heads left towards Bangui, although it is still another 370km. There is a large check post here although to begin with none of the surly looking army fatigued guys sitting on the wooden veranda do anything. This is the 9th check post I’ve counted since entering CAR – we passed another this morning on way into Bania, but surprisingly no problems – hard to predict. Try to find water at this junction but there is no pump – hasn’t been all day and none ahead as far as I can tell. I sense this will be a problem as we head into DRC.  People use river water, which is fine for washing and cooking, but have to be more careful regards drinking.

    I take coffee and avocado puree in a small shack here. The coffee actually very good and from CAR. Avocado is mixed with a maggi stock cube – odd combination – people use it here for everything – discovered it actually makes good soup. Manage to get a little water here, also I’m able to break a 5000CFA note across the road from buying just 100CFA of groundnuts. Finding small change has been almost impossible – now that I have it the idea is to hold onto it as long as possible – breaking 1000CFA notes first before the coins are used. Impossible to get change from a bunch of bananas in a village – these though are about the only things being sold along the road, along with plantain and manioc.

    Once we pedal off on what is a smoother sand track heading east the jungle starts to assert itself more distinctly. Butterflies are everywhere – many different colours. They settle on the sand then fly up as I pedal past. And lots of small black birds dart across road in late afternoon. There is also occasionally a very strong scent of a flower – not sure what. Later in afternoon we pass pygmy camps – tiny little huts for tiny little people. Expect to see more in DRC too.

    Sight of 2 fresh papayas on roadside brings me to a stop. Buy both for 100CFA and Hiromu goes off with my 10Litre water bladder to fill it – water source is some distance and a local goes with him. I sit alongside an elder (drunk?) with a map of the Congo. At some point in the conversation, which I do well to follow with his French being comprehensible, I explain that the papaya I just bought from him for 50CFA would cost upwards of 1000CFA in England, but that tomatoes and veg are cheaper there than here. Later I hear him relaying this info to other locals– probably wishing he had charged me closer to the UK price.

    When Hiromu returns it’s not far off sunset, so we arrange to camp by the school, a few hundred metres away. I enjoy these camps, but sometimes feel that we’re distancing ourselves from the people by doing so. On the other hand I know that interesting as the local company would be, it would also be anything but relaxing and relaxation is what I yearn for at end of the day. There would also be an added onus/expectation of gifts/payment. Now in my tent I realise I’ve pitched it over termites – they’re vibrating under me. Too much hassle to move now.

    12/02/11:  Location: Bangui: 04 ° 22.124 N 018 ° 34.709E

    Things are changing here. When we arrived 4 days ago I planned to be ready to leave CAR by this stage  – pirogue across the river to Zongo, DRC. All the kit is washed, collected DHL parcel (containing spare tubes, pump, Blood River book, packet soups, multi vitamins, maps of Kenya, Tan and Uganda) updated website and feel well rested. But yesterday Hiromu returns from an outing to find a Japanese NGO in the city to say he has been offered work – not with NGO, but a Japanese construction company – wtf! He was keen to leave earlier than me and now he has the idea to stay 2 weeks until the end of our CAR visa to gain what he calls ‘experience’. He was a travel agent before starting his journey. This Jap company are bulding a number of schools in Bangui and require an assistant/translator (Hiromu barely speaks any French). He claims it to be a rare offer and that they will employ me too. That was yesterday. Today I spent 4 hours standing with a hard hat on and holding a tape measure as some Jap guy who speaks zero English or French goes about taking measurements. This was after re-entering Japanese officialdom by sitting in an office in Bangui. Those silent 30 minutes in a room of 7 male Jap  employees took me all the way back to that staff room in Japan where nobody spoke but sat staring at screens – so formal and utterly surreal here in chaotic CAR. Hiromu instantly becomes Japanese again – sitting like someone has shoved a poker up his arse and telling me to not sit cross-legged or use my mobile phone. This transformation is shocking – he left his culture and country nearly 2 years ago but switches straight back into it with a Jap company around him. There I was thinking that he had started to reject the system. Annoys me as he later agrees that this atmosphere is stressful.

    Plan is to move from Giovanni’s pad (Italian EU guy I got put in contact with for a place to stay) tomorrow. This Jap company supposedly going to arrange accommodation for us. I told Hiromu this evening that me staying and waiting in Bangui for 2 weeks is 90% so that we head to DRC together, which was the plan. In two minds about whether I want to be taken on by the company, which will involve wearing a stupid boiler suit uniform and a hard-hat (the latter totally unnecessary).  I suggested the option of helping on an irregular/part-time basis – but this is totally un-Japanese – it is all or nothing – one cannot be part of the team one day and not the next. I find this conformity suffocating. Whether they pay money at the end of two weeks or not (Hiromu won’t ask as it is rude to according to him) is not particularly important (although if I knew it would be a lot there would be some incentive).

    Other stuff that happened this week: Met the Brit honorary consul for drinks here. Been in the country since 1978 –  said he got bitten by the mosquito and ended up with a black magic woman. Director of a diamond company now. Worked with a mission when he was first here – coffee export for some years after that. Man with stories to tell I’m sure – few secrets in there too. First real social connection with UK diplomat on this trip.

    Last night ended up dancing till 2am in a club full of prostitutes – well they all are in Africa. Went with several MSF peeps – their working regulations seem strict as well – curfews often in place – what I’m doing must break every rule in the book. Had been put in contact with this English guy by various people on facebook – he used to work in DRC and gave me some good advice, particularly regards the check-posts. Will be big advantage to have an ordre d’mission letter – something more specific to state what I’m doing and where I’m travelling between. He disappears early and leaves me on dance floor with a woman whose hands are all over me. Don’t mind at first – then the demands for drinks come and when I move to dance with another girl I’d spotted earlier she comes over and gives me some abuse.

    Tonight I’d been invited to a party by a woman from World Bank, but after last night as well as stress from day and mixed head about whether to work here or push on alone to DRC  I decide to stay in.

    Bike junk

  • Getting away with it: Check posts and magic letters February 10th, 2011

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    “As I got deeper into Africa – the scrub, the desert, the rocky climb up to the mountains, the lakes, the rain in the afternoon, the mud, and then, on the other, wetter side of the mountains, the fern forests and the gorilla forests – as I got deeper I thought: But this is madness. I am going in the wrong direction. There can’t be a new life at the end of this”. (V.S. Naipaul)

    I pretended not to understand the demand for money and just continued to smile. Here I was at the first check post in the Central African Republic and what I’d read and been told about the country seemed accurate. I was being asked to pay 5000CFA ($10) to have my passport details logged in a tattered notebook. The soldier in military fatigues looked serious enough. I wanted to comment on how shiny his black boots were, but my passport in his hands was more of a concern.

    Hiromu performed his normal display of stubbornness for the occasion, pretending like me that he didn’t understand. But it wasn’t working, nor was our explanation that we had already paid 55,000CFA for the visa in Yaounde and would not be paying more to enter the country. I guess most people paid something, but to concede at the first hurdle would be setting a bad precedent for the many check posts that lay ahead.

    So I went to retrieve my magic malaria letter, which states, in brief, that ‘Mr Peter Gostelow is working voluntarily on behalf of the Against Malaria Foundation and requests cooperation for an untroubled passage through the country’. Included at the top of this letter I had written, printed and photocopied several weeks before was a logo of the AMF, which matched that on my dust-covered cycling jersey I was wearing in this airless wooden hut. The soldier read the letter in detail, looked at me and my jersey with a raised brow and loosened his grasp on our passports.

    I half-expected he would laugh and throw the letter back at me, but instead it was our passports that were returned. The magic malaria letter signed by ‘Bob Mather’ had worked, although I feel it needs touching-up with a sentence or two to state something to the effect of: ‘under no circumstances ask Mr Gostelow for payment at your control post’.

    I could spend the rest of this blog post describing something about almost all of the next 17 check-posts that lay ahead of me to the capital Bangui, a distance of 600km. That makes it a check post roughly every 35km.

    I should note that not all of the military-clad officials manning these posts demanded money. The shock and novelty of a European and an Asian (one of them resembling Jet Li and the other The transporter according to many people here) rolling up on bicycles with a brief explanation in broken French to say they had crossed the border from Cameroon and cycled X number of kilometres over the past X months, sometimes diverted attention from the usual procedure which would probably take place when someone arrives in a vehicle at one of these posts. Our passports would be checked and sometimes the vaccination cards, but when they were seen to be in order and there was a lull in the exchange of words I would take my passport back into my hands, say ‘merci beaucoup’, and do my best to casually get back on the bicycle and pedal away as fast as possible before someone changed their mind and thought “Wait a minute. This guy might be on a poor man’s form of transport, but he’s white so must have a lot of money. I’ll call him back and demand $10 by asking for a document he doesn’t have”.

    At a few problematic check posts I let Hiromu produce his own magic letters. These consisted of slips of paper where he used Chinese characters to write down the name of the officers, then presented the paper with an explanation that if they kept these pieces of paper in their shirt pockets they would be protected from any harm. I found it difficult to keep a straight face as one soldier seemed hypnotised by the Chinese characters before carefully slipping the paper into his breast pocket. Traditional/spiritual beliefs are very strong in this part of Africa. Hiromu has since found better paper to write on, the colours of which match those of the Democratic Republic of the Congo flag, the next country where we anticipate more of these problem check posts.

    Entering the capital Bangui proved the biggest headache. Just when I thought that the check posts were becoming easier to negotiate and the keep-it-cool jocular rapport with the bored soldiers was working my passport got taken from me and stamped by the police. ‘But I don’t need I stamp’ I said, ‘I’m not leaving the country yet’. Well apparently I do to enter Bangui, so down it went in my passport, swiftly followed by a serious demand for $20. The magic letter didn’t work on this occasion, but fortunately I already had the passport back in my possession while the call for 10,000CFA was repeated. Hiromu on the other hand didn’t. It took another hour of waiting, explaining and staying calm before we both had our passports back and were free to continue. I think leaving the city might produce similar problems.

    Between the check posts my journey into the Central African Republic has been a positive, but moving experience. Looking back over the last week I keep visualising the sight of half-naked children dressed in rags waving or running away from the roadside in fear. Their mothers, sitting close by in front of small mud-brick huts are peeling casava or stirring a wood-fired pot, smiling and calling out ‘merci’. I was never sure if this was intended as a greeting or some kind of thank you of sorts for visiting a country that sees very few foreigners. I saw similar scenes in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but life here seems more desperate. Nothing looks like it would have changed in centuries.

    Poser

    Some villages, which were never any more than one or two huts deep from the roadside, were totally empty – their residents probably having walked off into the bush to farm. Little else seems to be grown here other than casava. The nation somehow survives on this unnutritious woody shrub. Finding alternative food to buy is hard. No one has money so there is little to be sold. Bushmeat (gazelle, antelope, monkey, rats) has little appeal. I have eaten a lot of papayas, bananas, avocados and pineapples in the last week. I suppose things could be worse.

    Bushmeat for sale

    At night we camped beside schools, following the usual procedure of cycling into a village shortly before sunset and asking where the chief of the village was. Dozens of children would characteristically follow us to watch the procedure of pitching the tent and cooking. For seven continuous nights this consisted of us sharing 3 cups of rice (0.5kg), mixing it with tinned sardines, maggi stock cubes, and if we were lucky some tomatoes and maybe a few cloves of garlic. On one night I couldn’t finish my bowl so offered it to the children silently waiting a few metres away in the darkness. An older boy of about 11 came forward to take the bowl then returned to the darkness. There was a brief report of shouts. A minute later the bowl came back without a grain of rice in it.

    Through the school window

    Many of these rural schools consist of little more than mud-brick walls and a tin roof. Some are mere one classroom constructions which would commonly be filled with 100+ children. In one village we packed the tents up in the morning whilst the children lined up outside to enter the class. They joyfully sang what might have been the National Anthem, answered a few arithmetic questions and were dismissed to go home 10 minutes later. The teacher gave me some explanation about the recent elections affecting the school time-table. To be honest most children here receive no education. It is very sad.

    School camp

    Village school kids

    Heading east on a well graded laterite track we entered what might be classified as an area of dense forest. Those logging trucks you saw in the previous few posts still came thundering towards us, but with far less frequency. Occasionally a track would branch off into the forest with a sign marked ‘Acces Interdit’. Somewhere down there a team of men with chainsaws must be selecting the biggest trees and felling them. There was no other traffic on these roads other than the odd motorbike.

    Rural transport

    Dust storm approaching

    Jungle cycling

    A pause in the jungle

    In the jungle

    Written in bold across this section of the Michellin map is a word embedded deep in the history of Central Africa’s forests – PYGMIES. It is an odd thing to write across a map; a bit like someone writing COCKNEYS on a map of east London or TUAREGS across a swath of the Sahara desert. Well sure enough it was pretty accurate. Within clearings of the forest and situated on the outskirts of several large villages I noticed the huts were smaller, rounded and the people sitting within them proportionally stunted in size. They smiled and waved as I paused to look at this Tolkien scene, perhaps as amazed at my colour and appearance as I was at theirs.

    Small pygmy village

    Bush meat hunters

    Equally as fascinating out on this jungle road were the butterflies. Thousands rose up like colourful confetti in the wind as I cycled past them settled on the mud. So many species, sizes, flying styles – where had they all hatched out from? Less enjoyable when I stopped to look at this fluttering frenzy were the bees. Were these killer African bees I had read about? They could smell my sweat no doubt. And when one caught the scent it would return minutes later with a swarm of friends. They didn’t sting, merely wished to taste the exotic perspiration infused with local dirt.

    Butterlies on the road

    There were rivers too. Big swollen volumes of dark water flowing silently southwards. They were significant in their own right, with names on the map to prove it – the Mambere, Mbaere, Lobaye. But these were mere tributaries of the Ubangui, itself just a tributary of the mighty Congo, Africa’s second longest river. When I crossed these rivers, often on surprisingly good iron bridges, I imagined what it would be like to load the bike onto a large pirogue and drift downstream with the current. Now that would be an adventure.

    Jungle river

    The deep forest disappeared all too soon (much like the pygmy communities) to be replaced by a secondary growth/savanna type vegetation, and after 500km+ of dirt tracks the tarmac started again. I expected the road into the capital to increase with traffic. It did, but the traffic was mostly human, not motorised. Men pushed enormous carts loaded with hundreds of kilos of wood towards the city, their chiselled muscular backs glistening with sweat in the afternoon sun. Women walked too, carrying loads on their heads. Many others waited at the roadside beside piles of casava and payaya for what little transport there was. Fuel is about the same cost here as that in my own country. People cannot afford motorised vehicles to transport their produce, even when it does exist. I had the impression that the Africa I was seeing here was little different 30-40 years ago.

    Walking into Bangui

    East to Bangui

    Bangui itself looks like it’s been caught in a time-warp. The city, which sits on a bend of the Ubangui river, is my last stop here in the Central African Republic. Across that brown murky expanse lies the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s an exciting and daunting thought – the hundreds of kilometres of rarely travelled tracks that lie ahead in a country that has occupied my thoughts for many months. I expect more problem check-posts, mud, sand, intense heat, humidity, rain, sweat, bees, flies, mosquitoes, lack of edible food and clean water and scenes of desperate poverty on a scale greater than anywhere else on this journey over the next few months. This is the main course for me. If it isn’t hard I’ll be disappointed. All I hope is that I exit the other side with bike, body and belongings mostly intact and a few good stories to tell. I feel there will be plenty of those, but you might have to be patient to hear them.

    100km to Bangui