February 21, 2018: One Heck of a Day
I had originally planned on taking the scenic “Epic Jungle Railway” between Brazzaville and the coastal city of Pointe Noire. About 10 days before the trip, I was alerted that the train had stopped running and that I had to either take a bus or fly. Since I originally chose the train so that I could see the scenery, I opted for the bus.
I was met by a man from my tour company at 5:30 am. He told me that the train had actually be bombed over a year and a half ago by rebels in a nice-sounding place called the Pool District (named for the large lake/pool in the Congo River). The Congolese government has kept the incident quiet so the country wouldn’t get a dangerous reputation- apparently nobody outside the country really knows what is going on. He then handed me a blue folder containing 5 sheets of paper: a notarized letter from some government official, an official invitation letter to Congo signed by the tour company, a photocopy of my passport, and two photocopies of an employee of the company’s passport. “This should work at the checkpoints” he said. “Show them this and you should be fine.”
After that reassuring chat, we drove to the bus station where I was greeted by Bernard, my guide from yesterday. We reminisced about the gorillas for an hour before he took me to the bus. There were four busses all going to Pointe Noire. While the tickets specified which bus to board, everyone swarmed towards the first bus with their luggage. It was chaos but eventually the bus company employees sorted it out and people eventually formed orderly lines.
My bus was the second one to leave. I got in to bus and opted for the seat directly behind the rear entrance to the bus in the hopes that it would give me slightly more leg room. It did not and I was hideously uncomfortable for the entirety of my time on the bus. Eventually every seat was taken. A guy and his not-young daughter somewhere between the ages of 6 and 10 shared the seat next to me. She kind of smelled but I eventually got used to it. We left only 30 minutes late.
I was hoping the air conditioning would kick on at this point but it did not. The bus driver’s assistant went on a 30 minute rant- presumably about safety rules and the journey ahead. Unfortunately, it was all in French so I had no idea what he was saying. In retrospect, it would have been nice to hear what he had to say because it may have prepared me for what was to come.
Just 15 minutes in as were leaving Brazzaville, we pulled over and everyone started getting off the bus. Wow that was an easy and quick bus trip! Just kidding- It was a checkpoint.
We all left the bus and walked along the side of the road while the bus trailed us. Eventually I was greeted by an armed police officer. I showed him my Blue envelope. He hesitated then showed it to a colleague who read through the papers. The colleague then waved me through. Boom! No problem! Past the police, there were dozens of merchants selling sandwiches, French bread, and water. “Bon voyage!” they yelled as we re-boarded the bus. That sounds way nicer than the standard American “Have a safe trip”.
I figured at this point I could put the envelope away for good and get a few hours of sleep since the government had checked our identification for the trip. I also hoped that there was at least a bathroom break a few hours down the road. To be safe, I drank my water slowly.
Unfortunately sleep wasn’t happening because the bus company blasted Congolese music videos. The music was happy and upbeat so I was okay with it for now. The driver’s assistant had to check my ticket again (it was checked as I boarded the bus but I suppose this was to prevent anyone from the checkpoint from getting a free ride to Pointe Noire).
We then left the city along the beautiful Chinese-built Route 1. The road was in pristine shape. However, the one really annoying part of the road though was these huge “crosswalks” (with signs and all) in the middle of nowhere that really functioned as speed bumps. The bus had no shock absorbers so we would all fly in the air and people on the bus would yell.
As we left the city behind, the scenery quickly turned to mountains covered in high green grass- basically savanna. I tried to take a picture of the beautiful scenery, but suddenly got yelled at not only by my seat mates but also the bus coordinator. There was no reason given since nobody could speak more than a few words in English.
I started to drift asleep but more speed bumps keep coming- probably one every 5 minutes. 30 minutes after getting on the highway, we pulled over to the side of the road. It was another immigration stop.
I pulled out my papers and walked through the checkpoint. This time the soldier with the machine gun took my papers and led me over to a tent on the far side of the road. In the tent were 5 soldiers with guns gathered around a table. They examined my papers and said some stuff in French that I couldn’t understand. Then I heard “deux mil” or two thousand in French. One guy then asked if I knew Spanish. I said sort of. He said that there was a problem with my papers and had to pay two thousand francs (just under $4 USD). I pretended not to understand. Then a guy from my bus walked up to me and said in English that I needed to pay two thousand francs or I would be stuck here forever. Had I had my own car I probably could have waited my way out of this but with the bus now being held up, I paid the money. I had a bad taste in my mouth from all of this because I knew the papers were legitimate and I was being extorted for money purely because I was a foreigner.
The man from the bus said in English said “This is the swimming district. These people are crazy here.” I assumed by Swimming, he meant Pool. He then explained that there is a secret war going on. The forces fighting the government here were the ones that destroyed the train. This road is solidly controlled by the government, although the soldiers here are corrupt and most likely undersupplied and underpaid by the government. I asked if there were more checkpoints. He laughed and said many. I hoped I had enough cash.
After the military portion of the checkpoint, there were many merchants trying to sell food to everyone as they passed. These merchants certainly liked the checkpoint.
We got back in the bus and I noticed a man taller than me light-skinned man seated a few rows ahead of me who also was stuck at the tent.
A mere 20 minutes later, we got to another immigration checkpoint. This time the English speaker found me and told me ahead of time we were going to have to pay. He took my papers and the other tall man’s passport which appeared to be ECOWAS and presented it to the armed guard. The guard looked and took us to the tent across the way. This time there were 7 men gathered around the table. All seven had guns strapped and one guy had a shoulder full of bullets. One man- wearing a beret- wrote all my information down on the least official looking sheet of paper I’ve ever seen. He then demanded 2,000 Francs so I could get my documents back. There were many guns pointed at us from many directions so I was going to pay up without argument. As I was taking out my wallet, the English speaker whispered loudly at me not to show money to the armed men. I didn’t have exact change so the tall man paid for me. He correctly assumed that I would not be getting any change back from these guys.
Again there were many merchants selling food and water. Some people were also using the bathroom on the side of the road. The benefit of having checkpoints is that the bus-goers will never go hungry along the way.
An hour later we hit another checkpoint. This time the English speaker heard from the bus driver that we could get through this one easier. He palmed 1,000 Francs to the preliminary inspector. Without glancing at the papers, he let us through. I noticed the tent across the way full of soldiers.
10 minutes later the bus pulled over to the side of the road. Then there was a loud banging on the back door of the bus. Two armed soldiers entered the bus. I thought this could very well be the end.
A soldier-with a lot of stripes on his uniform- stood in front of me. The other sat in the row behind me. As he sat down his possibly loaded military grade rifle hanging from his neck pointed at various bus goers. It turned out they just wanted a ride and were very nice.
Sometime later we passed another checkpoint. This time, the high ranking soldier stepped out of the bus and convinced the soldiers to let us through. This happened another 4 times.
Then we reached a very large checkpoint that we couldn’t talk our way out of. Before getting out of the bus, the tall man (who I learned is Algerian, but has a Mali passport) looked at me. We nodded at each other. As we stepped out of the bus, he grabbed my hand and we walked together to the checkpoint. From here on out we would approach the checkpoints together.
The soldier took us to the tent. Here there were 5 soldiers including one with a tan cowboy hat. Dozens of guns were lying around including at least 10 pointed at our feet from under the table. There was a pair of handcuffs lying very visibly on the table.
They demanded 5,000 francs each because my documents were not valid. The English speaker asked what more could I need besides a notarized invitation letter? They said a copy of my visa and entry stamp. Even though my passport was in fact in my pocket I didn’t dare take it out and show them as they then would have had some real leverage on me. Surprisingly they agreed with our logic and deducted the fine to 2,000 francs for the both of us.
Afterwards we walked by at least 100 merchants before reaching the bus. The merchants must love these checkpoints.
An unknown amount of time later, the bus pulled over to the side of the road. I prepared my documents for another immigration stop. Instead the bus driver honked his horn and dozens of merchants walked up to the bus selling food. It was an incredible sight. The Algerian man bought bananas and gave me 4.
We kept going for a mere 5 minutes and reached another immigration stop. This one, unlike the sketchy roadblocks was a real structure built over the highway. The Congolese were told to go out of the bus while I stayed on with the Algerian. An armed man in a beret boarded the bus and glanced at our documents. Easy!
I figured out that this was the end of the Pool District and the start of the next district. People nearby explained that I could now take pictures. I kept trying to sleep but the speed bumps were awful here. Like every mile.
For 2 hours we had no immigration checkpoints and soon the bus wandered through jungled mountains. It was so pretty.
Coming down from the mountains, we had 4 more immigration checkpoints but had no problems or bribes at any of these. At one immigration checkpoint, the locals were selling bushmeat. The TV’s on the bus also started to play stand-up comedy videos instead of music videos. Everyone- except me- thought the routines were funny. Not knowing French, I found the videos annoying.
11 hours later at 4:30 pm we finally reached Pointe Noire. It was incredibly hot. Before reaching the decrepit bus station, we passed by 5 miles of nonstop shanty town. We deboarded for the final time. I walked over to the Algerian man to give him money for the bribe and some bananas he bought me along the way. He took the money but then very calmly gave me his bag and motioned to wait. He first went to the bathroom but then found a rug and catch up on his Islamic prayers since the bus didn’t wait for Allah.
He suggested we split a taxi, took out a calculator and showed me the very reasonable price of 1,000 francs (just under $2). We then drove to my hotel and got out. He then realized that he had to go back to the bus stand because he forgot his $500 watch on the bus. But first he walked me into my hotel which turned out to be a Christian school’s boarding house. After checking in, we embraced and he took off. I tried to ask him for his contact info but he was gone.
Unfortunately my hotel did not have WiFi so I searched and eventually found an ice cream shop that had it. I had ice cream and a baguette for dinner before going to bed early.
While I would never wish this bus ride on anyone, I felt like I got a good understanding for the difficulties of traveling through Africa. I can only imagine what the trip would have been like on dirt roads. The corruption really struck me. I had seen police road blocks where the police will give you a discount on a bogus traffic violation in exchange for not reporting it in a few countries. But I had never before been asked for a straight up bribe. While I never felt in physical danger from the police, I was a bit intimidated by them- they had guns and leverage over me. Multiple sources told me that the corruption in Congo is minuscule compared to certain other West and Central African countries.
But the bus ride also taught me the power of trust and non-verbal communication. My friendship with the Algerian man arose out of necessity but at the end of the trip, I truly cared for him and his wellbeing. While I probably would have made it through without him, my psyche and sense of security was enriched by his presence.
Despite the hardships, taking the bus was worth it for a first-timer in this part of the world. The lessons learned on the road are what traveling is about and this ride will stick with me for years.That said, if I had to take a second trip between the cities, I would probably fly.