• Congo Journal: Part 3 March 23rd, 2011

    15/03/11 Distance cycled 26km Mapasa 02°14.548N      021°40.906E

    It is the maelstrom in the centre, the vortex around which all other countries in Africa revolve. It is a looming presence in all senses of the word, a land to be revered and respected, a place which can easily devour the unsuspecting. It is the true heart of Africa, it always has been and will undoubtedly continue to be”. (Bradt Guide Congo)

    Don’t sleep much due to the heat. The Mission room which we decided to take for second night is large, but there is no air-flow. I take the floor and Hiromu the single bed – his turn given he slept on floor for 2 weeks in Bangui. The Pastor at the Mission wasn’t happy with the arrangement – he clearly expected we would take 2 rooms and receive another $15.

    At some point in the night I wake from a vivid dream. I’m flying back to the UK from South Africa having finished the journey, but I’m panicking as I have no idea what I’ll do when I return. The last part of the journey I cycled quickly and I’m regretting not buying a return ticket to South Africa. But alas, it’s just a dream.

    At around 4.30am I can hear the call to prayer from the town’s mosque. Very bizarre – to be sleeping in a Catholic mission guest house and hear this. Shortly afterwards the Cathedral bells start ringing – equally as bizarre. Almost as if it were some kind of competition for sound space. I’m surrounded by jungle in central Africa. What is it with religion here? It is the only vestige of civilisation, the only window of hope for the millions trapped in poverty here.

    I use the oats that I bought back in Bangui for breakfast – mixed with bananas and sugar, Despite the simplicity it’s very expensive (oats cost $5 for about 4 portions) and Hiromu makes some comment as he chews on a baton of manioc. We’re both eating this every day with lotoba – him more than me.

    At around 9am there is a knock on the door. It’s immigration. How did they find us here? Not hard I suppose. Given previous problems I assume they (it’s only one in actual fact) will demand we go to his shack of a bureau where we’ll fill out forms and be asked to pay, but he merely takes passport details down and goes. Relief.

    I spend the morning finishing ‘Guns Germs and Steel’, by Jared Diamond. Very relevant given my surroundings. As is the next book I start – Blood River . Already read it once, but feel it will take new significance now that I’m here.

    We leave the GH at midday – nice to pack up for once without dozens of prying eyes on us and belongings, as is case when camping out. Although we’ve only been here 2 nights I sense the whole town knows us.

    Road out of town is sandy, then paved for a short stretch (first tarmac in DRC) as it passes a huge abandoned mansion. Well this is Mobutu’s house. I thought he was from Gbadolite up north, but that is where he had his legendary palace. Lisala is where the former Kleptocrat of a President was actually born. The setting above the river is truly palatial, but to think someone ruling this country for 30+ years could build something this extravagant and live the life he did when surrounded by such crippling poverty is quite disturbing. I stop to look at the mansion, which is clearly visible, but hold back from taking a photo. Sure someone is watching me.

    The sand soon returns and track undulates as we follow the course of the river, eventually steering away from it.

    Soon back to familiar village scene – friendly smiles and waves. Constantly calling out Mbote (hello) and Boni (how are you) and waving. People could be a whole lot less happy given their plight. Cross a small stream out in the jungle with an iron bridge. Water is deep so I jump in and fill water bottles up. That’s my shower for the day. Shortly after I cycle up to a police check-post. Hiromu cycled ahead and they obviously didn’t stop him. Officer in charge is completely wasted and his juniors, uniformed and armed, look embarrassed as he struggles to hold and make sense of my photocopied passport page. After 10 minutes I’m waved on.

    We set up camp in an enclosed kind of gazebo between Church and School. Whole village comes to watch – as usual most people here have never seen foreigners. Thankfully the wall of the gazebo keeps them at a distance. Frequently this situation is on the verge of getting out of control – hectic scenes and lots of shouting. Occasionally an adult will come round with a whip, which forces the children to flee. Most see it as a game of sorts. Only when we retreat into tents do people go home. Pastor somewhat confused/offended that we don’t take a room in his house. I do my best to explain that we prefer to sleep outside as it is cooler. Well it’s now over 30C inside this tent so I imagine several degrees more inside.

    Girl biker

    17/03/11 Distance cycled 55km Bumba 02°11.092N      022°27.739E

    What a splendid piece of cake!” (King Leopold, describing the Congo in a letter to a friend)

    Cloudy start to day – looks like a continuation of the rain that fell last night, but within a few hours the sun is breaking through. More bicycle traffic on the track as we approach Bumba. I cycle ahead for most of the way, carrying large pineapple on front rack – this is becoming familiar. After 20km I reach small junction – collection of shacks selling rice, manioc, fish. I take coffee and fried plantain. Swarms of kids soon descend and nearby adults alternate between asking for money and shouting at kids to move away. The latter is seen as a favour, which I guess it is, and therefore payment is expected. No sense of order out here.

    We pedal into Bumba accompanied by several cyclists. Never sure how close to befriend these chaps on basis that many will get hopes up that I will give them money for food when we stop. These guys are OK. About 15km from Bumba we come across water pump – first for many hundreds of kms. Water cold and clean so fill all bottles up. Shortly after road passes by a series of identical concrete buildings – remains of what I’m told was a palm oil plantation estate. Nothing happening now. Some kids nearby are selling coconuts beneath a rusted street light for a few pence. As I stand drinking the milk a group of men walk down the road pushing a bicycle with a child-sized coffin on the back. Another several hundred metres up the road I see them disappearing into the jungle with spades.

    The river comes into view as we approach Bumba. As with all other towns I expect immigration to quickly find me. They don’t. We ask directions to Mission and market – latter on account of needing food. Obviously this causes a scene as crowds rush around us, but atmosphere mostly positive, even if there is sense of things getting out of control.

    Beside the Congo river

    The Mission turns out to be a whole lot more welcoming than the one in Lisala. Meet the Belgian Priest – Carlos – here for 40 years! He has the appearance of a man who has lived his life in the tropics, but he’s upbeat and positive to see us – offering a room when at first there was merely a mention of a place to camp. There is no talk of money, so I’m hoping when we go that $10 a day for both will suffice as a kind of donation. The room has a shower and when the generator starts up in the evening even Internet! It is the first time Hiromu is able to read about the earthquake disaster in Japan. If electricity for 2 hrs per day with Internet weren’t enough there is even cold beer in the fridge within the Mission common room. I could quite happily rest here several days , but much depends on the boat situation to Kisangani.

    18/03/11 Bumba

    The normal laws of development are inverted here in the Congo. The forest, not the town, offers the safest sanctuary and it is grandfathers who have been more exposed to modernity than their grandchildren. I can think of nowhere else on the planet where the same can be true.” (Tim Butcher: Blood River)

    Woken after 6am by men working in yard outside. One can never really lie in in Africa – would get too hot anyhow in places like this. The generator comes on sporadically for an hour or so in the morning, causing me to quickly plug in the laptop to get what charge I can. Eat remainder of rice I cooked last night and prepare to walk down to the port. We get escorted by chap called Tiggy, who works at the mission as a kind of fixer of sorts.

    Bumba is decidedly more commercial and lively than Lisala, although still no traffic other than bicycles on the road. Cross a railway track on way to the river – almost totally covered in sand. After this a nunber of large warehouse-type buildings line the water front and streets running towards it. Plenty of police and military on the way, but most merely greet us – perhaps being with Tiggy helps?

    The Port has more boats and definitely more of atmosphere of commerce, but there is currently no boat heading upriver to Kisangani.

    Some random local says a boat will be coming on Sunday. I think he is some kind of port authority/security, but then there are always so many of these characters hanging around such places that you can’t trust anyone that far. But he seems quite knowledgeable and even names the boat.

    Walk back, stopping to take beer on a terrace overlooking the river. Well I drink a beer anyhow. Hiromu eats a plate of beans and plantain. The bar is really just a shell of a building, like most, but it’s the location looking over the river that gives it the charm. Cold beer is the only drink available, which suits me fine. Yet to see Coca Cola in DRC which is quite remarkable given its global distribution. Even if it were available I guess it would be a similar price to the beer.

    Back at the Mission I crash out for a few hours after finishing Blood River. When I read it for the first time it did a good job of scaring me. The second time round I realise it is the author who was scared. DRC possibly more dangerous when he travelled through, but he has made it his point of continuing the Heart of darkness theme.

    When I wake up there is some guy from immigration waiting for me. Don’t think there will be one town in DRC where immigration won’t find me. He was informed by some nurse I apparently spoke to yesterday. Bit of a mystery. He speaks good English and is polite and courteous, but then there is a mention of a registration fee that his superiors have asked him to collect. It is somehow harder to ignore this when the conversation has all been in English, but I change the subject and after a few silent pauses he gets up to leave. I know that the next time I’m down at the port immigration will find me.

    Late afternoon I take a wander by myself around the town’s market. Everyone very shocked to see the Mandele (foereigner) greeting people in Lingala. The market is closing up, but still lively. I collect then shrug off a few drunken clingers on – moving quite quickly around the stalls. Of interest are the live slimy fish (catfish of a sort) and huge maggots (also alive) squirming around. There is plenty of dried fish and stalls piled high with plantain. I buy coffee, manioc and mibika (pounded pumpkin seeds I think?) which is very good.

    Back at the mission I wait for power to start, then watch some of the news (still dominated by Libya and Japan) before going out on a hunt for beer. Yesterday there was some in the Mission fridge, but now empty. Well it seems beer is in low supply in the city, so at first bar I’m taken to by Tiggy the price has risen from 1500 to 1800CF. He expects the price will be 2000CF tomorrow. He walks with me to another place, where they have a few remaining bottles selling for 1500. I buy 3 and walk back to drink at Mission (if I drank in the bar I’d have to field constant demands to share it with everyone present).

    Use 2 hours of generator/Internet time to speak to Mum on skype, who tells me about her recent Morocco holiday. Unbelievable to get good enough connection to chat. When current stops I go to retrieve ice-cold beer – drinking it in candle light and sorting through hundreds of photos, whilst mosquitoes buzz around screen and my ears. I bought hard-to-find mosquito coils today but seeming how old and cheap they were I’m not sure they’re very effective. There are 2 burning in the room through the night, but I’m still bitten underneath the mosquito net. Even if my body just comes into contact with the net it seems a mosquito can locate the skin and bite through the net.

    Congo faces

  • Congo Journal: Part 2 March 20th, 2011

    10/03/11 Distance cycled 71km Mbata 02°19.031N 020°12.263E

    “There is something primordial about Congolese villages. The villagers themselves wear modern clothes, often in tatters, but modern nonetheless in that they are factory-made and delivered by the occasional trader who ventures along the river. But the houses are at the base level of simplicity. There is not a single pane of glass, metal hinge, cement plinth or fitting that connects the place with the modern era. There is no litter, no plastic bags, empty cans or cigarette butts. Without any painted signs, it is a place of browns, greens and duns, a settlement built in the jungle and out of the jungle, utterly separate from the modern world.” (Tim Butcher: Blood River)

    Start day finishing last night’s rice, of which there is still too much and I give away to crowd of waiting children. It disappears quickly. Pineapple follows. Bought it yesterday for 500Franc ($0.50) and it’s large enough to feed 5 people.

    Nothing new today on the road. Track is sandy, but follow path that other bicycles have made and makes going easier. A few cyclists ride alongside until we reach town of Dondo – it is on my map as a village, but was clearly something more significant in the past. Pass an enormous shell of a building which looks like a warehouse. Says it is a University for Agriculture and Science. I ask a local when it closed, but he tells me it is still open – can’t quite believe this.

    Stop to take lunch close by of lotoba and manioc (they are becoming a staple although latter is highly un-nutritious) as well as avocados that I bought on way in. A local drunk tries to help us then follows us out asking for a reward – his persistence and desperation gains 2 cigarettes, which he seems very happy about.

    12Km further on we reach Akula, which sits beside a large river – the Mongola – just another tributary of the Congo. Kinshasa is navigable from here, so I guess most of what arrives by truck in say Gemena must be unloaded by boat in Akula after a 2 week journey by river from the capital. No wonder beer costs 3 times the price in Gemena as I heard it does in Kinshasa. Yet to try Congo’s famous Primus.

    There is very little to show for the town’s important location – merely a line of wooden shacks along a single street. I spot the small DRC flag I’ve been wanting to buy and as I’m in process of bargaining for it some chap from immigration comes along. He seems angry and agitated at first, perhaps because I half ignore him, but when we go into his shack he’s kind, taking down the passport details without asking for money. Shortly after we’re in a precariously narrow piroque crossing the river (750CF each) and immigration are waiting for us on the other side. I expect problems, but again nothing – definitely calmer here than further north.

    Cycle on a short way and the jungle immediately encloses the track to a single-file. We stop early again on account of needing to find water. There is a source close by and most of the village inhabitants follow us. Camp beside a nearby school, although I move the tent inside when the rain suddenly starts to fall.

    Pushing through the sand

    11/03/11 Distance cycled 72km Mbokutu 02°11.542 N  020°42.041E

    Touring the Congo is an unforgettable experience. One may sit in an air-conditioned cocktail bar of an ultra modern hotel in Leopoldville or Elizabethville and yet within a few hours witness primitive dances deep in the virgin jungle” (Belgian government tourist brochure 1951)

    Am up early (6am) before school starts and the classroom I’ve hi-jacked for the night is invaded by dozens of children. We stop shortly after for coffee amidst scenes of frenzy as huge crowds gather. Really get the feeling that few foreigners pass along this road. For many children, and adults, it is surely the first time they’ve seen foreigners, something which is confirmed by some of the older adults, who possibly remember an era (1960s and 70s) when there was a trickle of overland traffic coming through central Africa. It is hard to imagine what that must seem like as I cycle past – a mixture of great curiosity and fear. Do children hear stories of how white men used to come to the jungle and chop off the hands of their ancestors who were ordered by Belgian colonial officials to collect rubber?

    Zero 4-wheel transport today and only a few motorbikes. No water pumps again and hard to find good quality water. Hard to believe this single-track lane is/was a principle route in DRC. In many villages hoards of children run through with us and there are calls for handouts, both from them and their parents. There is no shame here – life seems cheap and people in this country have been so embedded with the nature of foreigners coming to plunder and pillage the resources that asking for money/gifts is partly a reflection of this and partly a reflection of how acute the poverty is here. Congo definitely not somewhere I would want to land in for the first time visiting Africa.

    Day ends finding and filling up with water from a not particularly clean source – really in the jungle here. The village we end up in has no chief or visible sense of authority. Surrounded by vociferous kids and teenagers all evening until we retreat into our tents. The sky is clear but I put the rain sheet on so as to create some privacy. Our local friends will be outside the tent come daybreak.

    Local curiosity

    13/03/11 Distance cycled 54km Lisala 02°09.121N    021°30.757E

    Certainly there is a Congo River, a capricious serpent which unrolls its black, green and greenish yellow rings over six thousand kilometres of mines and plantations, forests and virgin islands, obese cities and brush outposts…” (Helene Tournaire: Livre Nois du Congo)

    Day seems to start earlier and earlier – 5am when voices start outside tent. The usual scenes play out as we pack up. Wild hysteria when camera comes out and they realise they can see their faces in the screen. Decide to delay eating the pineapple I bought yesterday. Instead carry it 15km to Mondele, where we’re directed to what is a large mission with cows grazing outside – a marvel that they survive in the heat. There are at least 2 dozen and they all look healthy – no shortage of lush grass here. There is no real market here as instructed, and nowhere to buy coffee or lotaba. Sit outside the mission eating pineapple and listening to the Sunday Mass service inside.

    It is another 30km to Lisala. I go ahead as usual and although we stop to swim twice in one of the many small streams that bisect the road, I’m alone – cycling at own speed. Track becomes more sandy as the Congo River comes into view from the crest of a hill for the first time. Surely there should be a sense of awe at seeing this enormous beast that defines the country, but it is midday, the sun is beating down and the sandy track starting to piss me off.

    I look for a place to wait for Hiromu as I approach Lisala, but there is none. Instead I take a small track branching off from main road and get semi-lost. Ask lots of children where the route Principal is, but apparently I’m on it. Two young kids show me the way to the mission and don’t seem very grateful when I buy them some sweets – finding the people persistently demanding on a daily basis, which makes hanging around anywhere outside of the missions quite challenging. Everyone wants some kind of handout.

    Mission provides the tranquility I need so wait for Hiromu. There is even a bar here with beer for 1500Francs – might be cheapest I find. Someone here directs me to another building with room for $15. Instead we opt to camp. It seems a good set-up at first but chap who was friendly to me when I arrived tries to extract $10 each for security. This would clearly be going in his pocket rather than to the underpaid chaps who actually work as night security. I think the fact that he has seen me drinking beer and eating spaghetti and sardines (all luxury) is enough to know he can demand something. Doesn’t make for relaxing atmosphere.

    Jungle at dusk

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


    ” 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

  • Days in the life: Journal excerpts June 12th, 2010

    As well as blogging on this website, I try to keep a hand-written journal. At some point in the future I will read back through it all and probably wished I wrote more. Here at least is what went in for the last two days.

    Work stations


    DC (distance cycled: 111km)

    RP (resting place: customs building: Bula – Guinea Bissau)

    Almost leave (Ziguinchor) without paying. No-one is around when I’m ready to leave the auberge – 7am, nor is there any sign of anyone. But as I wheel bike out of gate I hear a yell from behind the mango trees where I was camped.

    Border with Guinea Bissau comes earlier than expected. Like many African border posts it does nothing to make itself obvious. Exit stamp done with no problems – same on entering Bissau. My attempts at Wolof and Mandinka don’t get far now – most people here speak Creole – mixture of old Portuguese and local dialect. Calls of ‘toubab’ replaced by ‘blanco’. Added to latter are some more words sung in rhythm, sounding like “Blanco bay-lay-lay, blanco ba-ba”. Children in every village shout this out repeatedly when they see me. After all the toubab yells I don’t mind it – at least for now.

    Roadside vegetation almost entirely dominated by cashew trees and every village I pass through smells of the fruit fermenting. Guinea Bissau’s main export? Surely. Villages appear basic – no electricity. Houses are different. Instead of a compound consisting of several separate buildings (as in Gambia and Senegal) it seems Guineans prefer to live under one big corrugated roof. I stop in one village and witness the end of some singing/dancing performance – young men holding machetes and lots of stomping to jangle the metal-wear tied around their boots. They then chant in rhythm and move in a circle (kankarans?). Someone watching alongside me speaks some English. I ask him if there is a place to eat – but only food on offer looks grim – bowl containing hunks of dark meat and in another bowl dry spaghetti Flies descend on both before a towel covers them up again. He invites me to eat with him, instead I pedal on and end up resting for few hours within a cashew plantation – falling asleep but woken by large ants crawling on me.

    From the map I expect to have to take a ferry across a river – big surprise to find there’s a bridge instead – looks new. Spot rain clouds up ahead – shortly after I’m cycling into the first downpour of many I’m sure. Whilst locals run for cover I seize upon cool air and enjoy  the sensation – steam rising from tarmac. Doesn’t last long, but sun now dropping and not sure where I will sleep. Luckily I meet English speaker on outskirts of small town called Bula. Joachim is a Customs inspector – find him sitting on roadside studying English from age-old text book. He shouts “how are you?” as I pass. Explain I want to pitch my tent. He talks with colleague then agrees to let me do so in spare room within customs house across road. Later we eat together – rice and fish. I ask what he is looking for in vehicles. Drugs, guns, anything he says. Insects/mosquitoes descend on light of his torch. No electricity. Retreat to sweltering hot room early – scorpion-like insects frantically running around near candle-light. Joachim says they’re not dangerous. Glad I have tent. Thermarest soon soaked in sweat. Don’t know why I pulled sleeping bag out – won’t be needing this for long time.

    Bissau flag

    11/06/10 DC: 41km

    RP: Bissau

    Up and on bike before 7am – stopping shortly afterwards for what is basically bowl of rice and palm oil. Latter burns in my chest when I start riding. Silly idea for breakfast. Should have waited and bought bread.

    Soon cycling into Bissau with more traffic than expected – mostly mini-buses and blue and white Mercedes taxis. There are even a few hills. Lots more cashew trees, but very little sign of the actual nuts! Once I’m past airport the roadside becomes more built-up. Not quite sure why I”m actually cycling into city. Don’t know anyone here, have no need to come and from what I’ve read there’s not a whole lot to see and accommodation is expensive.

    Entering Bissau

    Several days ago I did e-mail one of the contacts I’d received from MRC (Medical Research Council in Gambia) – she replied to tell me I could stay in hotel for 25-30,000CFA ($50-60), which is way too expensive. I then replied to say as much and inquire about a place to camp. It is a positive reply to this e-mail that I’m looking for in Internet Cafe. It’s not there and Internet keeps crashing.

    A blonde woman – early thirties? enters cafe – turns out to be English. Says she’s been living on one of Bijagos islands for 2 years doing anthropological research for her Phd.  I had thought of going, but boats run very sporadically. She tells me of house owned by Cape Verdean family in Bissau, which I may be able to find room at. She draws map and I later find it, half-regretting not arranging to meet up with her later. She makes some comment about Bissau being so small we’re sure to bump into each other – doesn’t happen.

    I find the Cape Verdean place. The owner is a fat woman with a mean face. She wants 12,000cfa ($25) and ends up shouting whole load of words I don’t understand when I tell her I will pay a maximum of 7,000. In the end I surprisingly get my way, although for £10 the room is very basic and dirty. There is talk of it being cleaned, but this doesn’t happen until much later. The sons working here are more interested in setting up TV screen for opening World Cup game – South Africa vs Mexico. I walk out around Bissau as it kicks off – later watching it in a bar whilst sitting next to Liberian who soon asks me for money for his bus-fare home. I ignore this.

    Bissau is very quiet – like Banjul. Most interesting site is Presidential Palace, which is a complete ruin – roof having fallen in during civil war here. Don’t know much about it – must research. Feels odd to see Portuguese signs everywhere. Area close to port dominated  by container lorries and Portuguese buildings – most displaying some import/export sign – very decayed feel to the place.

    Roof-less Presidential Palace

    Portuguese quarter:Bissau


    Bissau Port

    My Portuguese doesn’t extend beyond greetings – end up talking to people in mixture of English/French. Communication not very easy here. Restaurant prices very expensive, which combined with accommodation make this capital the most expensive one I’ve been to in Africa – very ironic given how run-down it is. At least there is minimal hassle on street. Can’t afford and have little inclination to stay here longer – will head off tomorrow in search of TV screen showing England game.