The strange mating rituals of the Gabonese

“Maybe I should’ve bought a donkey back in Mali,” I thought, depressed as I stared at my Africa map. I was at a guesthouse in Libreville, Gabon, trying to choose between a bad route and a worse one from Gabon to Republic of Congo.

The Franceville route would spit me out onto a rutted dirt track in the north of Congo, where I’d have to wait days to hitch on a truck – if I could find one – to the nearest town with a road. I’d probably pay a hundred bucks for the privilege of hitching, and the truck would surely get stuck in the mud a few times.

The Dolisie route would take me south into Congo, where I could catch the daily truck down a “highway”, which was just another muddy track through the bush. I’d end up in Dolisie in the west of Republic of Congo. From there I’d have to choose between a rumored once or twice a week train to Brazzaville and a boat route that skirted around the tip of both Congos via the Atlantic.

All possible routes would ultimately lead me into a dead-end – Angola, which wasn’t giving out visas to backpackers at the moment.

I’d probably have to fly over Angola.

But I still wanted to get to both Congos, at least long enough to buy cool Congolese carvings and textiles. At least long enough to use the visas I’d paid so much for.

The daily-truck-to-train route sounded marginally more appealing – it was documented – even though the last traveller’s reports through this region suggested that I’d run into bandits calling themselves “ninjas” just west of Brazzaville. But some websites suggested that the bandits were no longer an issue. Or maybe they were…

I shrugged, packed a jar of peanut butter, took a taxi to Libreville’s bus center, and caught a minibus headed south into the unknown.

Okay, not the unknown. Not yet. The town of Mouila, Gabon isn’t the unknown. It’s a transit center eight hours away in the south of the country, the last major town before Ndende, which is where I needed to get stamped out of Gabon before proceeding to the border with Congo.

Two hours separate Mouila from Ndende (measuring in kilometres or miles is pointless as it doesn’t account for road conditions). I stopped overnight in Mouila, thinking two hours would be easy to cover in the morning.

The bus driver and conductor asked me where in Mouila I was going.

“Un bon hotel.”

They conferred and decided to take up my cause, placing me in a hotel where I was offered chicken, pork, or antelope for dinner… I had the chicken.

The next morning, I headed to the rendezvous point for Ndende-bound transport by 9am.

Plenty of time, I thought, to make the two-hour drive to Ndende – where I needed to be stamped out of Gabon – and be there by noon before the police left for their three-hour lunch break. But an hour is never enough leeway in this part of Africa. I should know that by now.

At a dusty roundabout in the center of Mouila, two kids motioned for me to put my bag into the back of the next available transport for Ndende, a white Mitsubishi pickup truck covered in caked orange mud. I wrapped my bag in a plastic cover that I carry around, and then searched the nearby Lebanese-owned shops for a garbage bag (double protection!) with no success.

Other passengers took ages to materialise. One did after an hour’s wait – a strange scrawny older man dressed completely in white. When he wasn’t slowly lifting his legs into the backseat and then out again – he seemed quite frail – he was talking to himself. The other passenger, who had arrived before I did, did not seem unusual. Both these men carried sacks full of baguettes.

This worried me. I had a jar full of Jif and a squeeze bottle of jam. But I had assumed I could get baguettes anywhere. Maybe not?

I was completely bored by the time the third passenger materialised at 12:30pm. There’s an excruciating mind-numbing dullness to sitting on a bench waiting when one is intending to be getting stamped out of Gabon. The dullness happens after one wrestles one’s anxiety to the curb, which occurs post-worry. To combat the dullness, I read this week’s New Yorker magazine on my Kindle and fantasised about napping.

Something I didn’t understand happened when the driver finally decided it was time to leave though… We combed the town looking for Passenger #1, who had vanished. Passenger #3 was there, also carrying his own sack of baguettes. The two boys whose job it was to stand in the back of the truck raced around the market, the post office, and up and down the centre of Mouila searching for the second passenger. He was nowhere to be found.

The driver was annoyed and wanted to leave. This was novel – transportation leaving when it wasn’t (over)full almost never happens in this part of the world. But I was glad… I didn’t want to be crowded in, shoved up against the weird man in white. Not only would my red-dirt stained clothes mess up his white polyester outfit, but also, no one wants to be shoved up against a weird guy who is talking to himself.

We drove out of town past a Chinese crew building a road. As we drove, the man in white fingered his rosary and chatted to himself. The driver and other passenger ignored him, as did I.

Eventually, man-in-white handed me a slip of paper. This was a blank page he’d torn out of his address book, and it had his name (Vincent) and phone number on it. I politely thanked him – people were always giving me their phone numbers here. This is a common way that people are polite in East and West Africa, like we exchange business cards at home. You exchange phone numbers here though you know you’ll never use them. My response to inquiries for my number is to say “No SIM”, (which isn’t true as I have a multi-country SIM). They nod – this is understood in all languages – and give me theirs. The one time I slipped up and gave the young woman at reception in a Nigerian hotel my number, my phone rang three times over the next 48 hours, but no one was there.

Vincent asked me where I was going. I mean, I think that’s what he asked. He asked me in French.

“Dolisie,” I said. That’s my eventual destination, though for the moment, I was heading to the border, where I’d stay overnight on the Congo side before embarking on a day-long truck journey through the mud to Dolisie.

Vincent looked in his tiny address book, paging through slowly until he found the name and phone number of a hotel in Dolisie. He wrote this on the back of the slip of paper he’d put his phone number on. Perhaps I’d misjudged Vincent. Perhaps he wasn’t a weirdo.

Or maybe he was.

About 20 minutes later, I noticed Vincent was weakly digging around in his bag. Trying to be surreptitious. Discreet. I didn’t know what he was looking for, but I doubted this could be good news for me.

Whatever, I thought, and looked back out the window at the huge green trees around us. But out of my peripheral vision, I could see that Vincent then casually put his hand on my daypack, which was on the seat between us.

Eh? What was he up to? I glanced over. He slowly, meaningfully lifted his hand. He’d placed a wrapped condom on my daypack.

Ewwww!

I yanked my pack towards me, loudly saying “NO.”

He palmed the condom without comment and slowly moved his hand back to his man-purse.

Gross. I went back to looking out the window.

I almost laughed too. This frail old man who talked to himself and could barely get his legs up onto the seat of the truck was propositioning me, based on nothing more than sitting on the same seat and offering me the name of a hotel?

But I can’t say that it didn’t bother me. What a strange thing to do.

The other passenger and driver never even noticed. But I was prepared to make a fuss if Vincent hadn’t backed off.

He tried to make small talk a few more times, pointing out trees or birds he thought I should look at. I nodded but did not engage.

We finally reached Ndende at 2pm.

Only an hour to wait until the immigration office’s lunch break was over.

Want to travel the world solo? Check out our solo travel guide. Fancy taking a career break? Here are 7 reasons why you CAN take one.

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Cameroon to Gabon on a loaf of bread

What should I eat first, I thought. The baguette or the croissant or the toast?

I’d really, truly had quite enough bread since crossing over from Spain into West Africa two months ago. But I had developed an unfortunate habit of eating every meal on my round-the-world trip as if it were my last. I gorged myself on things I didn’t even like because I didn’t know when I’d get to eat again.

But, I reminded myself, I wasn’t on a long bus journey or in the middle of nowhere. I was stuck in Yaounde, Cameroon all week, waiting on visas. There were nice restaurants right down the road, and my instinct to eat every bread product placed in front of me was not helpful.

After my all-carb breakfast, I ventured down to the Democratic Republic of Congo Embassy to pick up my visa, then moved my passport to the Republic of Congo Embassy for an overnight stamp, before finally turning in my passport at the Embassy of Gabon a day later.

On Friday, I showed up at 1:30 at the Embassy of Gabon, thinking I could smile sweetly at the guard and waltz in through the gates. That’s not exactly how it went.

Instead, when I showed up, I found a group of about 20 others waiting for their chance to smile sweetly and waltz in through the gates. I was – unsurprisingly – the only non-African waiting, but I was surprised to see that I was the only woman outside the gate aside from the snack vendor.

I stole glances at my fellow applicants. It was impossible to tell their countries of origin, as they were all dressed similarly in jeans and buttoned shirts. We all waited.

At 15.00, the embassy security guard came outside the gates with a box. He lifted passports from the box one at a time. He opened each, paged through to the names and photos, then called out each name. The passport-owner would then claim his passport.

I could see mine – which is double-sized – way down in the pile. I wanted to point and ask for it, but I forced myself to be patient.

The guard didn’t call my name. He saw the USA stamp on the cover and handed my passport straight to me without opening it.

And I was off! After a week of sitting still, I immediately rushed to grab a taxi across town to the transportation hub, where I boarded a crowded minibus.

My goal was to get as far south as I could before dark. I ended up in the small town of Ambam, Cameroon, searching for a hotel in the rain.

On Saturday morning, I got a motorbike taxi to the Ambam bus station. The motorbike driver stuck my backpack on the front of the motorbike, using his knees to stabilise it. My backpack has been transported this way across a dozen countries. It made me nervous originally, but now I knew that this is just how things are carried on motorbike taxis.

We zipped up a dirt road, hitting tarmac at a crossroads, and arrived back at the bus station.

“No, no, not here,” said a uniformed man shaking his head at my driver. “You must take her to the cars to go to the border.”

Another traveller, a young man from Cameroon, was having the same discussion. We both whirred off to the shared cars two kilometres away, our motorbikes travelling as a convoy.

We were both pushed into a tight squeeze of four across a sedan back seat. Our luggage went into the trunk, and we were headed to the border.

This was tight. Physically, there’s no way I should have fit. The man and woman who were already in the car were plenty large enough for the small backseat without two more people being added to the mix. I don’t think I was even grounded on the actual seat. I was sideways, my left hip on my neighbour’s thigh and my right hip smashed up onto the armrest on the inside of the door. My foot went to sleep. I shifted, causing a chain reaction of everyone shifting.

The journey was short and at the border town, my new friend, who I’d just spent the last hour sitting on, decided to help me. He left his luggage with a friend at a kiosk, and hired two motorbikes to the border.

“Uh…” I wished he wouldn’t do that. I knew he was just trying to help, but I’d have to pay for him as well as me. And I’d read something on a blog about having to do things in a certain order.

The two motorbike drivers took us through town and started heading to the border. As we went through the town centre, we passed an immigration office.

“There?” I asked my new friend.

He shook his head.

I’d have to assume he knew what he was doing. But then I remembered the blog I’d read, and also thought back to the locals who’d encouraged me to blaze right through the borders at Benin and Nigeria. It’s easy, just walk through!

The rules are clearly different for regional passport holders. But then again, the trick to travelling in Africa is to just go with it. Things work out about three-quarters of the time, leaving a pretty wide margin of error.

Here we are, I thought, when we eventually slowed down and stopped outside a small wooden building. But it was just a police checkpoint. A policeman laboriously wrote down my details and we were off again to the border.

The taxi drivers had delivered us. I paid them for both lifts, mine and my helper’s, and they whizzed off, heading back to town. My helper proudly led me up to the passport-control kiosk. And his face fell, as the officer on duty asked him something sharply in French. I got the gist of it, as I’d gotten the gist the last two months in spite of having very little French vocabulary. Predictably, I needed the stamp from that office we’d passed back in town.

We hired two new moto taxis, which out here in the middle of nowhere, commanded twice the prices of the taxis we’d hired in town. We drove back to the police checkpoint, registered my details again, drove back to town, got me stamped out (interrupting several people eating breakfast – I’d left Ambam at the crack of dawn), and went back to the moto taxis.

Now I had to put a stop to this.

“Merci pour assistance,” I said to my helper. “Mais… je… vais au frontier solo.” Why had I taken German in high school when I could have taken Spanish or French?

I used my hands to wave a kind of blocking motion at his chest. See, you don’t need to go back to the border with me. Je vais alone. I can handle this.

He looked relieved and departed. Alone now, I jumped on the back of the remaining moto taxi. Time to drive back to the police checkpoint, register all my details, go back to the border, and get stamped out of Cameroon.

I did, and after showing my passport stamp to the last officer at the last hut in Cameroon (who was also eating breakfast), I walked across into Gabon. To find no vehicles. No share-taxis or private cars. Maybe I should have crossed a little later, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t have crossed on a Saturday morning.

Then, a thump-thump-thumping stereo interrupted my thoughts. A small Toyota had pulled up, its windows down, the driver motioning to me. Did I want a lift?

Why, yes I did.

He was a taxi, although unofficial. A Gabonese woman hurried up… don’t leave me! We went through Gabonese formalities. More forms. More hurrying up to wait. More checks. And we were off, zooming to the police station in Bitam, Gabon, for my entry stamp.

“I saw you a week ago on the ferry from Nigeria!”

Stunned, I took a minute to form a response to the man who owned the copy shop across the road from the police station in Bitam, Gabon. And when I did form one, it was lacking in articulateness.

“Wha… really?”

“Yes, from Calabar.”

He was right. I started laughing. He laughed too, and then explained why the police had asked him to come across the street to translate for me.

“They want a copy of your visa. Here, I will take your passport and make it for you in my copy shop.”

He disappeared across the street and just then it occurred to me to go with him, but as I was walking out the door, a man in studded, zippered, acid-washed jeans stopped me.

“Hey, I saw you in Yaounde. We were both at the embassy to pick up our visas.”

And so we had been. I didn’t remember the copy shop owner but I certainly remembered this fellow in his flashy-disco jeans. He was still wearing them.

I trotted across the road and fetched my passport along with my photocopy, picking up a bottle of water while I was there. “Do you have any food?”

“No, but there is some down the road.” The copy shop owner waved past the bus, which I could see clearly. I hoped it wasn’t going to leave while I was still in the police station. But the policeman stamped me into Gabon quickly, and then walked me outside.

‘There.” He pointed to the bus, Bitam Express. I walked down and bought a ticket.

The bus to Libreville was leaving soon, or maybe not soon. The ticket-seller shrugged self-consciously and encouraged me to go find breakfast.

“Don’t go too far though.”

I walked down the road toward a few shacks. One of them had a man in front with a stack of grey, cardboard egg trays. Aha! That’s the breakfast guy then.

I didn’t have the highest hopes for breakfast, but wanted something with caffeine and something edible so that I wouldn’t starve.

I pointed to the baguette. The seller nodded. Great. So far, so good.

He held up a finger, then two. Did I want one egg or two?

Even better, I’m getting an egg with my baguette.

“One.”

“Mayonnaise?”

Er… it was early in the day. How long has the mayonnaise been sitting out? Ah, what does it matter, I thought. Cheap mayonnaise isn’t real mayonnaise anyway, and probably isn’t even perishable.

“Sure.”

He smashed a hard-boiled egg into the baguette and spread it around, then covered it lightly in mayonnaise. Like a devilled egg on a baguette. Not bad. Not bad at all.

“Do you sell Coca-Cola?”

He shook his head, and then the man who owned the kiosk behind him scampered down the road, indicating I should wait there. He went and got the coke for me, from another shop.

I took my baguette and coke and went back to the bus garage. There was a short concrete pillar nearby, an improvised table for this excellent breakfast.

I wouldn’t get more food until sunset, when the bus stopped at Ndjole, a wild-west style logging town. Before then, I’d turn a little green with the other passengers as the bus wound through the mountainous forests of Gabon, along dizzying switchbacks. At one point, we’d be stopped by an unexpected roadblock – a broken-down pick-up truck in the road. The male passengers would gather as a team to lift the truck off of the road so that the bus could pass, while I squatted behind the bus with four Gabonese women at a makeshift communal loo. The forest here was dense – there was no sneaking off into the bush.

But for now, I munched slowly and waited. Bread products suddenly seemed a lot less repetitive. Mmmmm, fresh breakfast on a pillar on a sunny morning in a border town in Gabon.

What could be more perfect?

Want to travel the world solo? Check out our solo travel guide. Fancy taking a career break? Here are 7 reasons why you CAN take one.

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Follow Marie’s journey across Africa and around-the-world | Blogs… More

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