My first day in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo (French influenced versus DRC with Belgium influence,) started out a little on the wrong/expensive foot. My plans were to use the Congo as an escape route and a sanctuary because of Visa issues. I thought all was well as Brazzaville is more like a sleepy village compared to Kinshasa which has the population of the entire Congo just in Kinshasa. The streets were wide, clean, and had a laid back feel. There weren’t throngs of cars and people littering the roadways. The shops were clean and quiet. My blood pressure dropped quite a bit just walking around. In fact, I thought I was on a roll when I guessed the right direction and ended up in the recommended area for cost effective hotels and activities, the Poti Poti district. From that point things went drastically down hill. The first place I tried looked a little too nice and had rooms starting at $15US, but that was much higher than I expected to pay. Long story short, I walked around, took a taxi to some far off place with a military guy, and still found nothing else under $20US. I thought I had scored once when I found this out of way place that looked brand new. The guy showed me a really nice but small room and told me it was $8US. I quickly calculated that I would spend at least a week there just relaxing and taking naps. I had found my spot, but I needed to get some money changed to pay for it. I told the owner I would be back and walked the half an hour back to the dock area where the money changers were. I changed the money without a problem and headed back. When I went to pay, suddenly the price was $28US. Originally, I knew he had said $4000fcs but now he wanted $14000fcs. I was bummed and depressed. It was coming to night fall and I still hadn’t found a place to stay. Finally, I just said screw it and went back to the first place I stopped at 6 hours before. I got the room, which was the nicest that I had by far since comig t the Congo. Having a place to stay, even though it was expensive, got my nerves back in line and I had a nice evening eating bbq chicken (this time I know it was chicken because it looked like chicken and tasted like chicken.)
The next morning I took a stroll down to the train station which was only a block away. I really was in no mood for another train, but it nagged me that I would come all this way and would do absolutely nothing. When I got there, there was a huge que of people, so I knew it was ticket buying day which meant the train would leave the next day. Half-heartedly I went and checked and found out that the train did in fact leave the next day and that it was $40US for first class. The ride was only 14 hours and it seemed very straight forward. I figured that I would go take a walk around town and come back later in the afternoon and if there was still tickets left for first class, I would go, but if they were sold out, oh well, I had tried. I secretly hoped for them to have sold out.
When I got back after a few hours, the line that had wound around the parking lot was now inside the building with perhaps a hundred people left waiting. I decided that I had nothing else to do so I took a seat and just hung out with all the other people. The people had a good time watching the Mazungo wait in line just like them. After three hours a police officer came up and asked why I was waiting. I told him I was waiting for a ticket. He said “Give me your money,” which I did and he went to the front of the line and had the girl who was buying her ticket buy mine as well. I gve the cop a few dollars and headed out with my first class ticket to Pointe-noire. One side note, standing in line for my ticket and the total lack of regard for people is a good example. What the police enjoyed doing was making people get in-line. They again did this with the threat of whips and would drag out of line the younger guys that lipped off and would beat them. The other people they would make stand front to back with no gaps between anybody. This would mean your face in the hair of the person in front of you. It would be considered bump and grind had it not been for the fear factor. Once they would leave then people would go back to relaxing until the police came again.
The next morning I headed for the train station. It was like I thought it would be, a buz of activity. Before I got to the train I was stopped by a pack of military that looked and smelled as if they had a hard night out partying and were now there to make some money. They were basically stopping people and shaking them down for money. I got stopped and the guy made me give him my passport. He started yelling about my papers not being in order. Once I smelled his breath I knew he was full of shit so I waited until he wasn’t paying attention and I grabbed my passport from his hand and pushed by him. He was screaming at me as I walked away but didn’t follow. I knew at that point I guessed right and he and his buddies were just trying to make some beer money.
On the train I found out that first class consisted of normal bucket seats. Second class was standing. So although I had a place to sit, which was in the back row next to the bathroom and the back exit to the next car and doors to go out, everybody else just crammed into any available space. This meant that there was not going to be any getting up and walking around, and people sitting on the armrests of the chairs. I didn’t mind because I was pretty much numb to it at that point and it was only a fourteen hour ride.
I met a military guy who spoke English and we chatted for a bit. When he found out that this was my first trip, he became serious and said that it was his obligation to inform me that we would be passing through ex-rebel territory and that we would be boarded by rebels whom called themselves Ninjas and were the last holdouts in the Rebel fighting in the Congo. What he explained was that because of the fighting between the Ninjas and the Government, the train lines and transportation links had to be stopped because of so much fighting and hijacking. They had settled it by hiring the Ninjas to be the security guards through the Pool region in which they occupied. In order to keep the peace, the Government created a special military outft that would travel through this same region while the Ninjas ran the train. Their job I had hoped was to keep the peace and to make sure things didn’t get out of hand, but he told me their job was to relay demands by the Ninjas to the government so the government can do what they wanted. Because of this, the military guys were not allowed to carry weapons. Great. I also found out from my neighbor that the Ninjas also used this offer of protection to basically rob the passengers anyways. Great.
We took off within a half hour of the posted time so I was really hopeful. We got going without an issue. About an hour later, just as we left the city we stopped in a small village and the Ninjas came on board. What I was told was that they got the name of Ninjas because they were part-time soldiers who did this to make side money. They wore their hair long or got wigs to have the long black asian hair. In reality, they were just teenage delinquents with Ak-47s and heavy weapons. They were definitely the drop outs from school that were destined to be crooked. The only one that had long hair was the guy who looked to be in command. He was in his mid-twenties and did have long hair but it was like a Rastafarian more than a Ninja. He came through with four kids carrying assault rifles and RPG’s. Were talking spare rockets strapped to his back. One of the other guys I saw later even had a barrel clip fed machine gun. They were packing some heavy duty shit. After this guy came through, all that was left was a dozen or so of the kids hanging around the first class. The way they extorted money was they went down the aisle jerking off the baggage in the upper storage racks. They would the force the owner to pay a fee for storage. Luckily, I had gotten on board late and there was no room so I had shoved my pack under my seat.
Now, things didn’t go smoothly with me and the Ninjas, hence the title. Of course, I was the only non-Congolese person on board so I stuck out like a sore thumb. Two, I was asian which kicked off the usual crap about being a Chinwa (Chinese), three, like always I assumed to be military, and four, I was in no more mood for peoples shit after the prior months experiences. It turned out to be a lot of comments, me staring down these guys, and hours and hours of the ninja guys and some of the passengers talking behind my back with the conversation intertwining between Chinwa, American, Militaire, and all the other crap you can imagine. The staring issue caused the toughest guy of the group to walk by stop and make some smart ass remark which in turn caused me to call him a nigerian monkey. I know, ost my cool, but I won’e put up with anybodies shit, machine gun or not. This caused things to flare up and the guy coming back and giving the sign language that he was going to write my information down and then with his fingers pointing as a gun and then the slashed throat. That pissed me off any more and I pulled out my paper and pen and offered it to the guy. This caused all the guys to gather and start squawking like a bunch of chickens. Looking towards the other passengers, they had that look of oh shit. Even the military personnel took off. Finally, things settled down to the normal b.s.ing from the behind. One of the passengers a huge guy, and I mean huge like he took up the whole aisle way, when he turned sideways even, stood right next to my seat. When one of the Ninja guys would walk by he would turn sideways into the entrance of my row and pretty much blocked off all space. This seemed to be his way of keeping the peace as we could no longer make eye contact and therefore not discuss our personal issues.
After a while we passed a few more villages and must have reached the border because they all disappeared and a bunch of standard military came on board carrying weapons. Things seemed to settle down considerably.
The next batch of excitement came when we stopped at a little village. It was a normal stop with people coming ot and selling stuff to the passengers. This time was different in that all of a sudden the engine disengaged from the train and took off. It just left. We were stuck there for six hours until it finally came back. No explanation, it just took off and left us there.
That six hours turned the one day excursion into two days. We finally pulled into one of the major cities in route and most of the people left which made things a lot more liveable. I got a new neighbor who was really nice and spoke English. He was going to Pointe-Noire to visit his sick daughter and was needing to get their quickly. I told him about the six hour delay, but how we had no problems since then. He seemed relieved that the train ride might work out. That all ended about 12kms from town when the engine just died. Everybody got out and just started to wander around. Some guys told me that they had called back to town and that another engine was on its way. Tack on another five hour wait, but this time out in the middle of nowhere. Later that evening the new engine showed up and pushed us to the next village. Since we were stuck for so long, everybody was out of water but luckily the place where we stopped was just before the new tunnels that were built and there was a fresh water spring that came up next to the railway. We took our empty bottles and everybody filled up. They disengaged the freight cars and said that since we were so far behind that they would only take the passenger cars. It was astounding, we jammed like I had originally wished. No more long stops at the villages. We would roll up, throw out the paperwork and just move on through. It was night fall so hardly anybody was at the stations so in the end we didn’t even slow down at any of the last stations. What was supposed to be five hours turned into a little over two. Everybody was very jubilant about that. We pulled into Pointe-Noire about midnight. A Police-Lieutenant had befriended me on the last part of the trip and became my new best buddy. He saw me as an opportunity to get to the states so he was acting like my personal guide making sure I got off the train okay, constantly telling me to watch my step, finding us a cab, and taking me to a hotel which his friend owned and whereby I would be safe. It was a bit much, but it was nice not having to search around at midnight competing with 500 other passengers who wanted a taxi and to get out of the area.
Malaria. Since the next week pretty much encompassed me being sick, I will go into a little detail about having Malaria. That evening before we arrived when we were stuck in the bush, I came down what I thought was allergies. I got the sniffles and I started to sneeze. No harm done. I had done some hiking while we were stuck and went through a lot of bush and grass. When we got into town I was exhausted and just wore out. I of course figured that was because we were on the train for 48 hours. I just figured a good nights sleep and all would be fine. The next morning I woke up feeling like a truck hit me. I had the same problems as the night before, but now I was feeling in a fog and my body ached. Now, I kicked it up to possibly having the flu. I found out where a pharmacy was and went down and picked up some medicine for the gripe (flu). Back at the hotel the guy who sat next to me had shown up. I told him that I was filling ill and that I thought I had the flu. I told him my symptoms and he said that I had malaria. My first comment was no way I feel fine. That is what some doctors had told me was the surest sign that you have Malaria when you say that you are fine but you are obviously sick. It donned on me that he was probably right. That day things started going down hill. A fever kicked in and I started getting really disoriented. I luckily had some Malaria Cure pills and started my dosage. By that night, I was really feverish and I was seeing things in black and white and very staticy. I went out to get some food and it took all my mental powers to keep reminding myself where I was and what I was doing. At that point I wasn’t feeling sick but I was in a total daze, but I knew it. It was pretty surreal. That night things got bad when I started burning up and I could feel the heat off my forehead and back of my neck. It got to the point where it was hot to the touch. I was popping pills that I got for the flu, and dousing myself with water. I would wake up in a panic because I kept dreaming that the table in my room was gone and if the table was gone then the medicine I had was gone because I didn’t have the medicine that would float in air. I was dozing in and out and just snapping to straight consciousness because of the same dream. Later, the stomach problems came and I felt sick to my stomach. I had a bottle of Fanta so I took a sip and it made me dry heave. I hadn’t had any food for a while so I figured I should at least get some water down so I wouldn’t dry heave. I chugged a bunch of water and felt no problems. I thought about becoming dehydrated so I figured it best to get some of the Fanta down. I took another sip and the same thing dry heaves. For some reason though it made me feel much better and I was back to having just the fever and body aches. Later came the scariest part, when the shooting pains started hitting at the base of my neck under the skull. It was shooting pains that would double me over and not allow me to sleep. That freaked me out because I thought that I could possibly have Cerebral Malaria, the type that can kill you in 24 hours. I would pop the flu pills every two hours and that helped and I slept with a wet towel on my head to keep the fever away. I took a look in my book which had a section about malaria. I had the symptoms to the “T”, so I knew it was malaria. What worried me was that the second stage was Jaundice, followed by coma, and then death. I had no idea what in the hell Jaundice was. For some reason I thought it caused your jaws to lock up so I spent a lot of time stretching my jaws. It really pissed me off that they would say Jaundice but not say what it was. That was the first time where I was worried that I had made a big mistake being out in the middle of nowhere with basically a time bomb in my head. I watched the time and figured as long as I could survive the night I would be fine and it would not reach the death point. I also started worrying that buying the cheaper version of the Malaria cure probably wasn’t such a good idea as saving $1.50 was probably not worth the risk I was going through. It was a tough night.
The next day it was still fevers and shooting pains, but I was still alive and pretty sure I didn’t have jaundice. I spent the next three days in bed only getting up to walk to the corner to buy some bottle water and to splash off to cool off. On the fifth day I was feeling better and was able to eat some food that the staff brought from the restaurant. It was shrimp and rice but it was really good after not having eaten. One point the night before I knew I was going to be okay when I started to get the cravings for McDonalds. The cravings were to the point that my mouth was watering and my stomach was growling. What I wanted was two not one, two Big Mac meals, super-sized, with Sprite, and a side of a large strawberry shake. What I would have given for that.
That day I decided I needed to get back towards civilization and went and got a plane ticket to get me back to Brazzaville and closer to a hospital.
The next day, I flew out not having even seen the ocean.
Back in Brazzaville, things started falling apart again. The hotel where I had stayed before did not have the cheap room available. I waited three hours in the lobby because they thought the person in the room was going to check out but they finally came back and said they were staying. The only room they had was one of their expensive ones so I had to pay $25US for a room.
I was pretty much through with the whole Congo thing and just wanted to get out of there. I was on the wrong side of the Continent and the original plan was to go back to Kinshasa and then fly to Goma which was on the other side of the DRC. There I could cross through Rwanda and Burundi and make it to Tanzania which was as about civilized as Africa gets. I set out that monday to go to the DRC Embassy to see about a visa. When I got there, the guard told me that they were closed until Thursday. Fuckkkkkk. Mother Congo was trying to kill me. I was pretty much in a panic state and figured I would just go to the border and get a visa there. When I got there the Immigration guy was just about to stamp me out of the country when he looked and saw that I didn’t have a visa. He told me that they would send me right back and I would have to get another Visa for there and still have to wait to get my visa for the DRC. I was stuck. At that point I started to cry. Not really, but it was close. I just wanted out so bad. It was the first time that I no longer wanted to travel.
The next three days were tough. I had lost a lot of weight from just the normal traveling, on top of that the week with Malaria and no eating had caused me to lose over 25 pounds. I had stretch marks on my stomach and I looked like shit. Before I at least had very little body fat and had decent muscles. Now I was just skinny and sickly looking. The only food around was street food and normally I love the stuff, but eating food from food stalls in the mud and sewage just didn’t do it. I would sum up all my strength for the day and make the half an hour walk to the Business district where they had a couple of Indian run bar restaurants that sold burgers and schwarmas. Those were the only things I could eat and were pretty expensive, but what did I care I was spending over $20 a night on a bed so what was another $10 a day on food. At least I would be eating. That and Fanta kept me alive that week.
Finally, thursday came around and I was there first thing in the morning. The guard said nobody would be there until 10am. SHit. I wandered around for three hours just not being able to sit. When I went back I filled out the form, gave him the pictures and the money, he checked it all out and said, no problem. I was ecstatic right up to the point where he said come back tomorrow morning. SHIT, Shit, Shit. I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning. I was so wired up about being stuck I couldn’t sleep. I forced myself to stay in bed until 10am and then headed down to the embassy. I ended up waiting for two hours with a group of 30 other guys just waiting. Mother Congo was just twisting that knife. It got to the point I was almost busting out with laughter at how comical things had become. Finally, a little after noon the passports came out and they handed them out. When mine came the guy was all smiles and I haven’t felt suck joy in a long time.
I packed up my stuff and headed for the docks. I knew the routine about immigration so got my stamp out with no problems. The immigration guy gave me the thumbs up when he saw the visa for the DRC. I didn’t have much money left so I decided to take the big Ferry. As I was walking to the port, a police officer stopped me. He started going through all my stuff and I was getting pissed. He told me to follow him and I thought I was being taken to an office for questioning. We ended up at the ticket office just when they closed the gate. He had me buy a ticket anyways and then was getting in a screaming match with the gate guards to let me through. He kept telling them that I was an American tourist and then had to let me in. They just kept telling him no. They have a barred off room with a gate that they keep a pair of handcuffs on to not allow people through. We were on one side and the boat on the other. Also in the gateway was a lady in a wheel chair and a guy who looked like he was helping her. They were also trying to get in but ot having luck. The guards at the gate started screaming at the guy and the lady and I thought that it was a bit much as she was a paraplegic and the guy was just pushing her around as there was no way she would be able to do it herself. Then, the guard starts beating the guy with his whip which was basically a fan belt with knots tied at the end. He was bashing the guys head with it until blood was splattering the walls and he couldn’t take it anymore and ran off. When the guard cooled off the guy came back in with blood running down his face and dragged the lady out of the waiting area. Just insane. The value of life in the Congo is zero. That is probable the most shocking thing that people don’t realize because I sure didn’t and I have seen a lot.
Finally, another boat showed up and the officer dragged me through the gate when they opened it to let people out. He took me to the table where I had to declare my funds and then to the guys who sold the port tax tickets. He then guided me on to the boat and through all the security thugs. Once he got me to the sitting area, he just waved and left. The nicest thing anybody had done for me in the Congo and had done it just because they were being nice. Things were looking up. After a couple of hours of roasting in the sun we left and headed back across to Kinshasa. After another nightmare of problems and having another officer help me but whom wanted to get paid, I was through and out of the port. I wandered around aimlessly through tons of UN military guys with really big guns and border line tanks. Finally, I just said screw it and grabbed a taxi and told him to take me to the hotel where I had first stayed.
Tags: Brazzaville, Pointe-Noire, Republic of Congo, Travel