We take off two hours later than planned because time in Congo is flexible, to say the least. Therefore, waking up to shower at 3:30am was a waste of good sleep time. Yet, we hit the road on the motorcycle loaded with my carry on bag, two backpacks and Mandaba’s overnight bag, headed to the northern town of Zongo. The plan is to arrive by 1pm, allowing us to cross the river into Central African Republic (CAR), from where I will fly to Zimbabwe (via Cameroon, Togo, Ethiopia, and South Africa. Something in my head says, “Ask Mandaba if he packed his ID” but I don’t listen to the little voice, choosing to look at the rising sun and beauty of my surroundings.
That was a mistake.
We ride for a long while, stopping for a breakfast of coffee and fried plantains. We get back on the saddle and carry on, stopping to buy what I thought was monkey at first, but quickly realize was another animal altogether, unrecognizable to me. Spotted, with the cutest paws, he is ready to be grilled. The seller wraps him in dried leaves and we bungie cord him to the back of the luggage, intent of gifting it for dinner to our hosts in Bangui. When Mandaba tries to kick-start the bike again, it hesitates. Over and over again, it doesn’t take until someone pushes him to get us going, with me trotting behind until we are sure we can keep the bike going and I jump on.
At our next water and sunscreen stop, the same thing happens and when the bike does finally start, the sound is different and we know we are in trouble. I smell gasoline but we don’t see a leak. We need to make it 11 more kilometers to the next village so we can reach a mechanic, so we putt putt down the road, hoping and shaking our heads every time it sounds like the bike will give up the ghost. At the toll stop, the bike dies again and Mandaba sends me to the mechanic to wait for him. I walk into town, feeling the stares of everyone as work ceases at the sight of a white woman. EVERYONE stares. ALL work stops. A phone comes out and starts snapping my picture until I turn my back and walk away. The bike takes a while to start again and I am beyond happy to see it coming towards me because this whole town staring is a bit much.
The mechanic has his shop set up under two ginormous tres and he immediately jumps into action, taking things apart, searching for our issue. And it is at this moment that Mandaba realizes he left his small bag with his ID and our satellite phone. Lesson learned: ask those questions that pop into my head, no matter how silly they may seem.
We chew on beef jerky as we come up with plan B, should the mechanic not be able to fix the bike. When it is obvious we are not going to get to the border crossing on time if we wait any longer, we hire a taxi to take us to Zongo. We wheel our bike to a pastor’s house and thank the pastor’s wife for stashing the bike with the animal we purchased. She is delighted and we are grateful. I wonder at the generosity and hospitality of the people in this nation. Not once, not even once, have we ever been denied a chair or a welcome into a home. Perfect strangers arrive at a house, asking for a motorcycle to be stored overnight (or longer, if we can’t fix it) and without hesitation or a request for reimbursement of any kind, we are given assistance. I hope to be this type of person…one who offers a chair to a weary traveler and a place to store things, if need be, for as long as needed.
The taxi arrives and once packed, it looks like this: the driver with Mandaba’s backpack on his front, me right behind him, Mandaba right behind me, and our bags and my backpack strapped to the back of the motorcycle, with two bottles of water on the top. Tight is an understatement. My 110lbs plus Mandaba’s 190lbs adds 300 to the bike, plus our luggage and driver. How the driver manages to hit the speed he does is incredible, really, and a bit scary.
We zoom out of town with the goal of making it to the border crossing by 3:30pm, as we have to do customs and a health check before the border closes at 4pm. The driver (whose nickname is Blaze, I kid you not…can’t make this stuff up) takes the plan quite seriously and we swerve around potholes, beep long and steadily as we round blind corners, slow abruptly when a child or animal dares to cross the road, and we fly to Zongo. I pray that a truck isn’t broken down on the other side of a curve, as that would surely result in three broken necks. I mentally warn every goat and pig that crosses our path. I hold on to my knees, fearing a big bump and my shoulder going back to a state of pain. When a truck comes towards us, taking up the entire road, Blaze makes us fit between the truck and the tall grasses bordering the road and I simply close my eyes, hoping children and women aren’t tucked into that grass, keeping safe from the truck, unknowing that a motorcycle demon is coming towards them..
Twice, I feel Mandaba’s head bump against mine and I find out later that he’d fallen asleep. How? Really….how?
We make the border in time although I no longer feel my legs because the driver is basically sitting on me for the almost two hours it takes us to screech into the immigration office in Zongo. Paid and thanked, he zooms off, back to the place where our bike waits for Mandaba to repair it when I take off in the morning. Exhausted and covered in red dust from top to bottom, we make it through Congolese customs, using a photocopy of Mandaba’s passport I happen to have in my backpack. A fight breaks out on the CAR side when a man refuses to allow the border police to check his bag and we watch as he is quickly surrounded by many police and the immigration lady. Such shouting and anger and weapons! We watch quietly, pretending we aren’t there, but we can’t leave the area, as my real passport and his photocopy must pass muster. Finally, finally…we are in a taxi on our way to the guesthouse where we can’t wait to bathe with the water I plan to warm up, making the bucket bath a beautiful thing.