We Are Spies

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8 July 2017 by Justine


Cycling in Pool and Plateaux districts (Congo-Brazzaville) – December 2016

We leave Brazzaville with the intention of coming back by bus to collect our package with the tools and parts we need to fix JP’s bike. We have one week before UPS’s approximate delivery date so we decide to slowly cycle in direction of Gabon. What we don’t know is that our dear package, so lovely assembled by my family, will be stuck at Brazzaville’s airport for almost two weeks after the delivery date, and won’t be available for pick-up until the entry tax paid – nothing less than 100 US$ on a 20 US$ worth package, which certainly puts Brazzaville in the top worst places where to ship.

Going North of Brazzaville like we do involves a generous climb. It’s really sunny, really hot, and for the first time, we need to wait in the shade until two o’clock. The next day, we meet our first fellow cyclist – which represents 50% of the cyclists we will meet overall this winter. He’s a young fellow from Morocco, from where he left eight months before, and he’s heading for Cape Town, then Cairo – the big African trip. His 29-inch wheels somehow still hold together with only five spokes. His bike needs major repairs – which could explain why he’s such in a hurry : « Do you have your DRC and Angola visas? » we ask, « No but I’m African. Shouldn’t be hard » he says, confident… And anything to say about Gabon? « There’s a lot of elephants in La Lope National Park » Ok! Good to know! Man, that guy’s isn’t stressed at all. We exchange our contacts, and off he goes. Good luck!

Two days later, we reach Ngo in the dark. We could have stopped before but… Hey! A cold beer is worth five kilometres with the head lamp isn’t not? We get a nice grilled fish and manioc (chicoine) for dinner, and then starts an endless process in order to get « secured » for the night. The chief, the police, the immigration, the militaries… We go from one to the other for nearly two hours. Everyone wants to register us in their books but no one wants our tent pitched near by. The Chief sends us to the army : « you’ll be safer there », but the army doesn’t agree : « the police station has nicer grass ». We go to the police station, and they don’t agree neither : « there might be snakes ». Finally, passed 9PM, we pitch our tent in the snaky grass under the terrified eyes of the Chief, the militaries and the policeman. Ngo gave us a premise of the very common authority power trip we’ll have to deal with in the next months and made us realize two things : first, the authorities WANT us to present ourselves to them in all circumstances, and second, the authorities have NO idea what to do with us when we do so, which almost always leads to endless and ridiculously complicated interrogations with their perplexed and suspicious faces saying : « why in hell did you leave your country to come here ». What we need to keep in mind is that central African countries all recently suffered from serious conflicts – and most of them still are – and this mix of suspicion and paranoia towards strangers is actually quite understandable, and they only want tourists to be safe. That being said, when militaries are constantly asking for cigarettes, policeman for money and immigration officers for sweets, it’s hard to take that hassle as a safety protocol. Best tactic in those situations : being friendly, patient and calm. Best test for our friendliness, patience and calmness : being called spies and having our passports taken away… But that’s later.

In Ngo, we could have continued north on the perfectly tarred road to the main crossing point to Gabon, but… Hey! Are we here on holiday to get a nice tan, or are we here for an adventure? So we head for Djambala. The road to get represents any cyclist’s dream : tarred, without a car and as flat as a pancake. We are laughing in JP’s beard and we cycle 30km/h effortlessly on our 50kg bikes. A storm is building up and we can see a wall of rain in front of us. With a huge smile on our faces, we go straight in it, and we soon can barely see two metres ahead. No need of a shower tonight! As we pass some villages, the locals either see us pass with their mouth open with surprise, or invite us inside. But there’s no way we’re going to leave the road in such perfect conditions : « Pas de problème! On aime la pluie! » (No problem! We love the rain!). When the rain stops, I allow my two only spare underwear to dry on my front pannier, but as we pull over a village for the night, I realize that I dropped them. I figure they can’t be further than 5km on that super flat road so I turn around as the Chief comes forward. JP jokes around saying that I decided to go sleep in Brazzaville for the night, which is 365km away, and they actually believe him. « Ben non! A’ s’en va chercher ses bobettes! Y sont tombé queq’part là-bas! » (Of course not! She’s just gonna look for her panties somewhere there!) explains JP in a very settled Quebecer accent.

Then follows one of those wonderful village moment. For one, as soon as I get back (with my panties, thank god), a big mama takes me under her wing. She firmly suggests me to put some dry clothes on « for me not to die of cold », brings me to a little room to allow me to do so, and then fills a bucket of soapy water for me to wash what I just took off « to have clean clothes tomorrow » – while JP is having a second beer with the man. All kids and women are watching the White girl work, probably expecting to learn a revolutionary way of hand washing, but realize that the White girl isn’t doing it differently – plus, is way slower and sloppier then a six-year old would, and start laughing.

No time to relax, because the mama wants me to start preparing our dinner – and is dying to see if the White girl cooks as bad as she hand washes. When she sees my tiny 1.3L titanium pot, she simply doesn’t believe that a 500g pasta bag will fit in there so she looses patience and takes over. I’m saved! Their kitchen is a separate little shack made of clay and sticks and even though the fire makes the room extremely smoky, the ambiance is the greatest. A twelve-year old girl comes in with a baby bird she just caught with a net. The poor thing doesn’t even have feather yet. Still alive, she cuts it open with a huge knife that she handles like a ninja, puts salt on its ribs and throws it on the fire under my astonished face. Well, now I understand why there is so little birds around – the baby birds are snacks. The older daughter of the mama has eight children and they are all screaming for food. As she puts hot water on the manioc flour she just powdered and kneads it with strength and precision, she shouts orders to her kids « Clean your brother’s face! Bring me more water! Come wash those pots! Put some shoes on! Bring me some wood! Bring me two plates and forks for the Muzungu! » JP finally joins me after three beers and two manioc cognac. Everyone seems to laugh at something or someone, including the kids who are gathered outside along the kitchen wall, from whom all we see are their eyes through some cracks.

We set-up the tent under a mist of rain and the Chief is really concerned. He can hardly believe those thin tarps will actually keep us drier that his clay shack, but after testing our mattress with his fingers, he wishes us good night. Next morning, we pack under the same mist, and the Chief asks us for medical advice. He has a pain that starts from his back, goes through his bum, and ends in his ankle « I bet it’s your sciatic nerve ! ». JP, who just got back on tracks after two months of sudden sciatic attacks on his left side, shows the Chief how to use a tennis ball to roll his bum on the floor – or mud, in this case. « I can’t let you my tennis ball cause this is my only one, but you can use anything else, ok! ». All the men nod their heads of agreement, and off we go.

We get to Djambala and it’s weird from the start. We see four cars in two days on that newly tarred road. We stop for a break just at the entrance of the city, not realizing that the city starts 100m from where we are. It takes two minutes for two policeman to spot us and to come greet us «  You are tourists? » « Yes » « You’re in Djambala » « Yes » « Come register » « We’ll rest five minutes and we’ll come, ok ? ». Unsure, they leave us eat our pineapple. Now we know that they know that there are two Muzungu in town. As we enter the town which is the capital of the Plateaux district, all we see are big beautiful brand new homes and hotels, a big clash with the wood and clay shacks we have seen since we left Brazzaville. We get to what looks like a landing strip : 150m long, six lanes wide, right in front of a white palace with control towers, cameras, and an eight-foot high wall. We get to the market where we finally see people and everyone stares at us, which happens all the time, except that no ones smiles, and no one answers back our salutations. This isn’t a great feeling. Elsewhere, the streets are empty, and we find out that the beautiful big house is the president’s house (surprise, surprise), and that the other one is the Minister of blablabla’s house, and that the next one is the Minister of blablabla’s house, and that the next next one there is the Army’s Captain’s house, and then the prefect’s house, and so on. We then meet the first Congolese that seems happy to see us and indicates us a small hotel where we could go, and invites us to come over for a drink the next day. The people at the hotel are really kind and we manage to pitch the tent on some beautifully maintained grass for few bucks a night, and access to a warm shower (!!!) and a western toilet (!!!). We then figure that since Djambala is a town, registering at the hotel is sufficient (our first mistake leading to the spy story), and we go for a walk. At the end of the « airstrip » is a trail that leads to a breathtaking view on the Batéké Plateaux. Djambala ends in a steep cliff that joins, far down, a patch of jungle, probably not even 200-metre wide before hitting a wall on the other side, that comes just as high as where we’re standing, and continues on an endless plateau to Gabon. All is green, all is bright, birds are flying, a dozen of kids who spotted us are doing tricks to impress us by jumping from a small cliff and landing on a patch of soft sand, and we already forgot the rough welcome Djambala people gave us an hour before.

Our second night in Djambala, we are walking in direction of our new friend’s place for a drink. It’s dark, maybe half past eight when a man apprehends us in very polite manners : « Hey, White people! Hey you! Come see me! Hey! Hey White people! I’m talking to you, White people! » The guy is visibly drunk so we keep going as fast as we can but the man is insisting. « I’m the sub-prefect, this is my house (he points the house behind him), this is my truck (he points a big white pick-up truck written « sub-prefect » in red on it), come ». We then politely answer that we have an appointment with a friend and that we don’t want to be late (our second mistake leading to the spy story), but that makes him more insisting, « come inside or I call the police ». Oh dear. So we entered. « I’m the sub-prefect, this is my house (pointing the surroundings), who are you? ». We then calmly present ourselves as we take a seat, he then shows us a book « I wrote this book, it was published in France, see, see (he points the book), and I sell this 20.000CFA (40$CAN), see » and he literally throws the book on my lap, on which I read : Colonisation de l’Afrique Sub Saharienne par l’Europe (colonization of sub Saharan Africa by Europe). « How can I know you are really Canadian tourists, and not some French spies here to recolonize Congo, EH? » JP and I, amazed by how ridiculous this conversation is, stay calm :

Show me your passports, says the sub-prefect.

– They are at our hotel, we answer (our third mistake leading to the spy story).

– You don’t have your passport with you?!?! I’m calling the captain, and he shouts to his poor daughter to bring him his cellphone.

Then follows this endless and ridiculous series of questions I was describing earlier, with the sub-prefect, then with the police captain, in the police station (after getting our passport at our hotel, of course). Two hours later, when I thought my jokes had won the Captain’s senses, the verdict drops. If we don’t have a letter signed by the Ministry of tourism of Canada and the Ministry of tourism of Congo-Brazzaville explaining our visit and authorizing us to « freely walk around » (and we don’t), we have to go back to Brazzaville tomorrow and get it, and meanwhile, the police will keep our passports so we don’t go anywhere. We have a valid tourism visa and passport? Doesn’t matter. They want what’s called an invitation letter that we didn’t need in our case because we are independent travellers, and because the rules changed and that once-needed letter isn’t necessary anymore. Try to explain that to a drunk sub-prefect that wants to sell his 40$ book on colonialism.

We are two unhappy campers, walking away from the police station, completely helpless without our passports. We are three blocks from our hotel in the super-empty-perfectly-tarred-weird town of Djambala, and just to make things nicer, a white truck follows us. We stop, it stops. We turn around, it turns around. It sounds pretty funny, but right now, it’s midnight, we have no passports, we are in the Congo, we used all our patience, we are today celebrating our first month in Africa (out of six for this trip) and that truck freaks me out while JP has steam coming out of his ears and wants to go knock on the sub-prefect’s door right away to get his passport back. Back at the hotel, the guys recommend us to wait tomorrow to go see anyone, which we do. But the next day, it rains a little. There was already not much action in town… There’s even less action now. We show up at the police station and the Captain isn’t there : « It’s raining » says the officer. We finally manage to see some other person with authority, with the Captain, and a much more sober sub-prefect. Two words were needed : Canadian Embassy. First time I ever had to use those terms, and it works pretty well. Suddenly, we weren’t suspicious anymore. They drop the spy story, and the invitation letter and the trip back to Brazzaville too. Their only concern : our safety. Now, the road we want to take isn’t good enough for us, visitors, so we need to go back to Ngo, and take the main road to Gabon like all other tourists. Sure! « You’ll get your passports on your way out » says the big guy « Ok! » We pack as fast as we can and we leave Djambala. Our new friends are truly hurt that the only strangers they had in months had such experience in their home town, but our visible happiness to be back on the road cheers them up.

On our way in, we had seen a dirt road going directly to Okoyo : 140km of dirt instead of 450km of tarred if we were to go back to the main road. They don’t want us to take a 150km dirt road to Gabon? Ok. We’ll take a 140km dirt road to Okoyo! On our way out, a white truck, again, follows us. But this time, we have our passports. Still… This is soooo weird! We see the secondary road, a nice and wide dirt road, and we go straight for it. The white truck stops, we keep going. Goodbye, Djambala!

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