Thursday, October 16, 2008

On the Road Again

There’s nearly nothing worse than finishing an extremely long journey only to remember that you have another long journey ahead of you. This was the case in Buta, because despite finally making it the 400km from Kisangani, pulling some things out of the suitcase, resting a bit, and settling down, we still had another 130 kilometers to go to get to Aketi.

We’d planned to leave early in the morning on Thursday but had received the invitation from the government office “requesting” our presence at this 10 am meeting. So when we actually left, it was close to 2pm already.

I’d forgotten the aches of the bike already, but there was a bit of excitement in the air because here we all were, going together -- Une Voyage Ensemble!

Cleve was taking video of us all going along, too. It was a real adventure.

Of course, we come to a place where I don’t see Adam OR Cleve behind me, so Matthew (the driver) and I decided to stop. I waited forever until finally, Adam came by.

But Cleve was still missing, and we wondered what had happened. Here we’d fled, like thieves in the night, through back roads out of Buta, just trying to get away from the endless invitations to additional registrations. And we’d escaped! But not all together!?

Finally, a different motorbike driver came by and let us know - the messages of the road - that Cleve’s bike had broken down, and that Cleve was resting in a village while Seba (his driver) went back to Buta for the part.

Go back to fetch Cleve or continue on? It was a tough decision, and there was no cellphone reception, and what do you do when you’re given the choice of continuing on out of a bad town or leaving a “fallen” comrade behind?

We did end up leaving, but I sent another message along the road to Cleve, letting him know we’d await him in the next big town.

The road was a bit better than the road from Kisangani, but it was still quite bumpy and rough. My driver at least knew at this point that I would need to rest and walk occasionally -- so it wasn’t as taxing. But when it began to pour, and we realized that all of our rainjackets were strapped to the luggage bikes far ahead!

Oh no!

We stopped in a tiny village and hid under their insufficient rain cover, and I managed to find Adam’s rainjacket in the one bag we had with us, but not mine. It still wasn’t really a place to stay, so I insisted, courageously/stupidly, that we should continue on.

Of course, the roads that had previously been hard and rough were now soft and watery, which only made them more dangerous. Unlike the trip from Kisangani to Buta where tiny villages were scattered along the route often, the road to Aketi was much more remote and villages were few and far between.

One could only hope, squinting through the pouring, thundering, overwhelming rain that a tiny village could be seen. The forest would feel like it was pulling away, and thinning from its dense green thickness and I would just say to myself “village, village, village, please let it be a village.”

Finally, it was, and it was, in fact, the village where the first two luggage bikes had also chosen to stop. No sign of Cleve, but plenty of mud!

We wanted to pitch our tent and just get warm - I’d had no rain protection and I was pretty cold, and the ground was pretty muddy so the villagers insisted that we pitch our tent inside this round open-sided house. It still amuses me, the idea of putting our house inside another house.

It felt once again like we were committing sorcery -- in the 2 foot space between the walls of the round house and the thatched roof we saw a million faces. It was sort of like one of those horror films where you’re surrounded by ghosts - except all you could really see in the dark were the reflections in the whites of the villagers’ eyes.

I crawled into the tent immediately and took off all of my wet clothes to warm up and passed them out to Adam to dry off, not realizing of course that this left me without clothes inside the tent, nude, and sort of stuck! There was one point in the night where, desperate to pee, I just held it until morning. I cannot imagine the faces of people seeing a naked whitey peeing in the bushes.

But the night still passed without incident, though with plenty of rain. Early in the morning once again, we headed out on our way to Aketi. With still no sign of Cleve.

We did, however, see a villager who looked just like Gary Coleman! Incessantly curious, she continued to hang within three feet of us, smiling her Gary Coleman smile but saying and doing nothing else. The thought of her face still makes us chuckle.

The road was saturated with water, though this was not the worst of our problems. Several trees had fallen across the road at different points, and because it was still early they had not really been tended to. Upon arrival of two whites, anyone who had been working would immediately stop and insist that we pay them to continue. It was, indeed, a bit of a scam.

We also saw a fair amount of primate bushmeat, which I’d of course seen photos of previously, but it still burns in your mind, images of bikes dangling with limp, dead guenons or baboons hanging slack-jawed from sticks like freshly caught fish.

The road once again felt endless - bumpy and muddy and wild - but the glimmering light of our final arrival in Aketi - and the knowledge afterwards that we would not have to travel further - kept us going. Motorcycle breakdowns were frequent too, but a welcome respite from the road. I’m not even sure how the chain of my driver’s bike stayed on at all, considering how often it seemed to fall off.

Additionally, there was a new terror -- imagine, if you would, for a minute:

It is pouring rain, dark with drops, and you’re covered in mud. Your bike stops in front of an old railroad bridge that seems precariously balanced on the slippery muddy slopes on either side. The original wood under the tracks themselves has long since deteriorated, and has been replaced with moldy, slippery, thin tree trunks. Over these trunks have been nailed long, sodden wooden planks, cracking at the joints and never more than 2 feet wide. It’s on these planks that people cross with motorcycles, or bicycles laden with items. You can hear them creak and haw with each new step.

You must cross this bridge, on foot, counting each step carefully and hoping that the bottom of your shoes are not as muddy as you know that they are. All you can feel is the beating of your own heart and the constant dripping of water on your face and head. You can hear the rushing of the water beneath you, wild with the rainy season. And you know, somewhere down there (as told to you earlier the day before), that there are crocodiles down there too.

It is not a bridge crossing I care to repeat. Sure, Indiana Jones would have survived with more surety, but I haven’t got his resources.

The final arrival at Aketi was so joyous - despite my pain and road-weariness, seeing the welcome sign just filled me with energy again. It’s so easy to get discouraged when you are seemingly defeated by such a small distance - 130km total is a miniscule in the US - only 78 miles - a distance you could drive in an hour on good roads. But to feel like you continue to move forward, and continue to be in pain, and each village looks seemingly the same enables this irrational fear that you will, in fact, never reach your destination.

And yet here we are!

Our original plans of traveling frequently to Buta to use the internet café are squelched, possibly to be reconsidered during the dry season. And Kisangani during Christmas seems even more remote. I cannot imagine choosing to make that journey again.

Note: Amazingly, 5 “short” hours after our arrival in Aketi, Cleve also arrived -- tired, muddy, but happy to have made it. He’d had a restless night in a small village outside of Buta ridden with bedbugs, but was otherwise fine.

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