Date: Tue, 18 Apr 2000 10:00:53 -0700 (PDT)
From: Claude Marthaler firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: "Against All Odds"
Bangui, Central Africa Republic, km 1O378O
Private property of the Belgian King Leopold II in 1884-85, empty Quarter for cartographers and explorers, Amazonian lung for Africa, an incredibly dense equatorial forest successively named Congo-Kinshasa, Zaire and Democratic Republic of Congo, the most landlocked piece of the African continent still remains a Pandora's box. The self-proclaimed and pernicious Mobutu Seko Sese ("the eternal") forgot the wise words of a certain James Bond: only "diamonds are eternal". Today, the DRC is sitting on its richness and drama: a huge cake of gold, diamonds, petrol, uranium,- the list is infinite.
Rapacious Africans, Europeans and Americans are behind the curtain evolved into a war, robbing simply a PEACE of cake. For the cyclist, the lush equatorial forest represents everything - but a PIECE of cake. Accompanied by Stephan (Dourrouj@hotmail.com), a Swedish cyclist, we decided to ride across DRC - Against All Odds.
Nothing is real at the Ugandan-DRC border. Waiting a good hour for the Ugandan official for an elementary exit stamp, we didn't realize that we were drinking our last soda for a long while. He made us walk, ridiculously, under the Ugandan flag. Ready for the lions, cyclist-gladiators?
From the very first second, we felt at war, trapped like hostages of a Congo which had obviously nothing, neither Democratic nor Republic. It was Sunday, a hot day. The Congolese policemen were far too polite, unprofessional and well-dressed, far too excited to see us to be trustful at all. "The visa is 15O dollars US each!", said the chief in an office which needed more than just a fresh painting to be named so. (Congolese State employees haven't been paid for 2.5 years).
Despite that I could finally speak French, my native language, for the first time in 6 years of traveling I felt not at home at all, but a stupid prey of a rhetorical jail. "Your camera!" I first pretended we had none. They went through all our luggage as if we would be terrorists, spies, anti-rebels or anything else useful and eventually, triumphant, found our cameras. "Where is your camera permit?" After hours of a threatening verbal Ping-Pong, we reached a 75 dollar bill agreement, sucked to the bones.
Welcome to the jungle! In this African Far-West, you simply need a bamboo stick, a trail, a Gun and a stamp and you become immediately a roadblock sheriff - a kind of local Mobutu replica, less the gold and the diamonds. Literally a free-car zone, just "Kadahuile" (Kada from Kadhafi and Huile for Oil), hundreds of cyclists carrying up to 100 kilos of palm oil or kerosene in jerrycans on a 5 to 6OO kilometer journey, one way. Nobody, except us, cyclists at heart. Congo is essentially a cemetery: skeletons of trucks of the feared Mobutu army, Kabila's buses and military vehicles, lying back on their backs like giant prehistoric turtles; plundered industrial buildings for palm-oil, cotton or soap, with no more roofs, windows or engines.
Congo was definitely Barbarian, already "archeologically" Belgian even before having been something at all. The forest had here, until now, the last word, invading the destroyed buildings and the trail. Riding through huge and dense bamboo groves, 25 meter high trees, we felt purified, for a time protected from the rapacious police. The people of the forest, hunting with arcs and suffering from malnutrition, regularly brought us chairs to sit on, bananas, eggs, water to wash ourselves. Until the openly shameless police caught us again and again, delivering us politely an officially stamped bill in American dollars (one dollar = 1.8 million "Nouveaux Zaire"!).
Soon we learned from our enemies: to hide our cameras, to hide ourselves, to pedal faster, but at the end, robbed again, we had only the sticky and indigestible "manioca" pasta to chew to express our anger. None of us wanted to buy pending dead monkeys sold along the road. Or once even a live chimpanzee attached on a rear bicycle rack, fixing our eyes with a terribly resigned and human look. We arrived in Central African Republic (CAR) after 2O days (one day stop), exhausted, but mentally light like the bubbles of our first sodas.
Not for long: no more police harassment in CAR, but other national specialties like Sudanese poachers killing 5O to 6O elephants a week for ivory they would carry on camel backs through their desert towards the Middle-East. Or The "Zaraguinas" or heavily armed "Coupeurs de route" (road cutters), stopping vehicles for 1O years between Bangassou and Bangui. But in fact, worse was to come: Congo was following us like a soul-puncture, a parasite. Stephan got vermins. I got malaria and amoebas khystes. Luckily enough, we were well treated. Stephan took a bus towards the capital. Eight days later, I was back on the saddle, but on the trail some 2O "chiggers" (small blood sucking parasites) suddenly coaused my feet to swell up. Then the yak acted like a rodeo horse on the washboard and I fell over painfully.
This Devil's "trailgramme"(a constantly interrupted incarnated message), was a too perfect physical demonstration of Arthur's law. As I just lost my center of gravity, I rode eventually 75 km south of Bakala, the geographical center of gravity of Africa: Against All Odds.
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