Friday, July 15, 2005

Almost Dead: Malaria and Shots Fired

Your heroine had a long couple days since the last message, but all is well now. I am in Libreville, Gabon, a majorly developed city on part with Dakar, with a belly full of speghetti carbonara, a working keyboard and soon plane tickets to a remote island nation with excellent scuba diving. Things are looking up.

We decided to head overland out of Pointe Noire up through Congo to Gabon. The first leg of the journey was a 5 hour train ride from Pointe Noire to Doulisi. The train was supposed to leave at 9 am, but as it was the maiden voyage of a new route, they didn't want it to be late and changed the departure time to noon. This decision was announced at 10:30. The train left at 1. The trip itself was comfortable enough. The train wasn't crowded and the surrounding countryside was incredible. There was a little excitement about an hour into the trip though, with a quick blast of automatic weapon fire rattling through. Matt and I ducked a little until the shooting stopped, then I went back to quietly shivering in the corner from the mild case of malaria I had picked up in Brazzaville. What happened is that the train was full of Klashnikov-armed gendarmes that were supposed to fight off any invading Ninjas or Cobras that might happen to drop by. Basically they just waved their guns around a lot and acted like big men. Anyway, there was some poor bastard kid, maybe 19 or so, that didn't have enough money for the trip, so he tried to give the guards all he had as a bribe to ride to Brazzaville. He was unsuccessful. The guard yelled at him for a while, and when he didn't seem to be getting the message they shot off a couple rounds to make their point. Happily they were shooting off the train not at it as we originally feared. An old guy on the train took up a collection among the passengers to pay the rest of the kid's ticket / bribe and that seemed to solve things. And we went on our merry way.

We spent the night in a Protestant mission in the dying town of Doulisi. It must have been important at one point in the colonial era, with more French-built buildings than a number of Africa capitals I have been in, but that time is long past and the city is quietly and sadly crumbling. Goats and chickens inhabit the ruins of the former Hotel Intercontinental, circa 1950. In the morning we went to the garage to find a ride north. We were about 250 km (150 miles) from the border and hoped to be there that afternoon. The only vehicle heading that way was a massive camion loaded to the gills with cases of beer, sacks of flour and hundreds of people. Okay, hundreds is an exaggeration, but more than 100. Matt and I watched the mad scramble to get into the back, with people kicking and puching to get the best spots on top of the beer crates and long the side wooden benches, and that included a 70 something year old man using his cane to fight people off as he climbed the side of the truck and tried to squeeze between the wooden slats. It was the most disgusting expression of human nature I have come across in all my years on the road. Matt and I paid and extra couple dollars and sat up front with the driver and a nasty little woman who kept telling us how miserable she was and how a truck had crashed on the same route last week killing 5 people.

The ride took 19 hours. The overloaded truck crawled along the road, having to offload all its passangers every couple hundred meters to get across a rough patch in the road and then load everyone back on. People would get bored and climb down off the top to stand on the running board and talk to Matt and I. Just disembodied heads trying to speak English. Then there were the police check points where drunken officials got endly pleasure out of hassling the two whities and trying to get us to pay bribes. (My favorite dealing with these idiots was the guy that demanded "proof of tourism." We offered to show him vacation photos.) Eventually they car got tired of dealing with this and would send someone in with us to brow beat the official into hurrying up. One official tried to get cute at 3 am and demand to offload the entire truck full of luggage to get to our bags and search them because we would buy him another drink. When he told this to the ensemble at the car, they ran him off in three languages.

Eventually we got to the border, and despite the fact that we wouldn't give the guy any whiskey (it was 6 am for god's sake), we crossed into Gabon. The next 12 hours were spent on three different taxi brousses making our way north and fighting with border guards. Things got a bit easier though as most people assumed we were Peace Corps volunteers. We got to Lambréné just after sunset. Matt heard the word "Sofitel" and we were on our way to hot showers and grilled gazelle for dinner.

Lambréné was a nice little tropical island town. It was where Albert Switzer had his hospital. We spent in after the previous sleepless night and spent a quiet day sightseeing. This morning we headed up to Libreville. The only thing of note was that as soon as we crossed the Equator, from winter to summer, it immediately switched from dry season to wet season, and started raining. Bizarre.

So, depite the shooting, and the malaria, which despite being mild is something I would not recommend to anyone any time soon, we are having a good time. Gabon is filled with Gabonese and Chinese people. The Gabonese living in the forest and the Chinese cutting it down. We are heading out on Sunday to Sao Tome for a week, a nice little tropical island off the African coast, so that should be less stressful.

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