There is no, no no reason this question has gone so overdue. There is none. To say I was busy for a week, a month, okay. But a year and a half?!? Pathetic.
Thusly the scope of the question, in my mind, expanded to fit its sluggardly proportions. Surely a question like this required the most epic of answers I'd ever written?
No. No, it did not.
It demanded to be written, period, because if I didn't finish it soon I'd retire before I did. For a while I thought this would be my retirement answer, and then I realized I didn't want the last thing I'd written for my favorite dysfunctional website to be what was, in fact, the most procrastinated answer in the entirety of Board history by an order of magnitude, spanning some 14,000 hours plus. #dubiouslegacy
20,000 plus, now. 20,000 weak sauces under the sea. That’s like, uh, a word screeched at random by a bird every hour. An ugly bird.
For almost two and a half years, a-parrotly.
And you know what this fowl question deserves?
Some. Freaking. Answers.
Let's begin. I'll catch you up as we go.
Or now, actually, this is Definitely-Not-A-Table-Of-Contents-no-answer-should-ever-need-one. BUT ALSO IT'S GONNA BE SWEET.
Stories always begin with bolded titles, if you’re navigating to something you want to read, because I can’t imagine someone would read this all at once. Searching for phrases with Ctrl+F or Command+F would also be effective.
Oh, Hail No: Along Inca Paths: Bad weather makes for good stories.
Hiroshima of the Caucasus: While traveling in the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, an open, terrible secret is discovered.
Wholesomeness Interludes: Sometimes people are nice, and it’s nice to hear about that.
Middle-Aged Middle Eastern Cross-Examination: Police only care about one thing, and it’s disgusting.
Honesty, Honestly: It’s the honest checkpoints you’ve got to watch out for.
White Christmas: Dinner with Dealers:Ardilla and Brother accept a dinner invitation from a mysterious man in an Argentinian campground.
(A single bad night makes a really long story. A really long story that I’d never tell at parties. But I ain’t scared of it no more.)
Wholesomeness Interludes, Part II: In case you weren’t wholly swayed by the first.
The First Cut is the Deepest - Meeting the Ba'aka People of the Congolese Rainforest
A chance stranding in a remote Congolese logging town yields an opportunity to meet a few of the world’s last remaining hunter-gather peoples. A long read, but probably the best one in here.
Seven Sorta Salient Short Stories: Skimming through? These’ll do. And there’s actually eleven?
Rules of the Game That's my travel aesthetic, bro.
Boke of Ardilla, Chapter 28: A birthday story, and a chilling prophecy fulfilled.
Civil Wars, Consulates and Other Inconveniences: When your presence is inconvenient, but your death would be more so. (There’s a birthday in here, too! And a cameo from a BYU professor)
Stats Break, Best and Worst
Look, you come up with a catchy name for it. Lots of pictures, though.
Mexico: Caves a la cartel: Fresh off the life grill! A recent lighthearted trip to explore the Mexican underworld accidentally results in meeting some Bad Hombres.
Where Do We Go From Here: A self-indulgent and overly long thing where I write and writhe like a gelatinous weasel to make some sense out of my travels. Gratefully, the end.
…And we’re off!
Oh, Hail No: Along Inca Paths
Country: Bolivia, Cordillera de Sama Biological Reserve
Time: Early 2017. The rainy season.
Photos: I don't have a single picture of this because a) our primary camera was stolen days before we arrived b) the GoPro crapped out c) the cell phone I had with like four grainy and awesome pictures is apparently now residing in Cuba. I can't and don't make this stuff up. Brother took it there.
The lightning flashed in the evening gloom, thunder roaring after it like a chihuahua pursuing a baby covered in bacon strips. And we were the babies, sprinting squealing across the drenched steppes of the Bolivian highlands as hailstones drummed us in a blanket of percussion. Imperceptible as a high school senior's ambitions at first, the layered ice balls had now grown to the size of fat blueberries. "It's killing us!" screeched Brother calmly as he lit the way forward with our trusty power bank, "We have to get to shelter!" As we blueberry-ice haters lurched across the gullies and rills of the uneven terrain a bolt of lightning landed a mere couple hundred meters away. For a moment, the mountaintop valley was frozen in light, illuminating the darkened farmhouse at the base of the hill ahead. Indeed, it was the very hill whose opposite side had just been besmirched by a blast of energy hotter than the surface of the sun. Shaken and helpless, we clambered onward and upward through the gully, over a stacked stone wall, onto a dirt road whereon a car now approached.
A car? A transporter! Immune to lightning (!), we could catch a ride with this infernal device and its inhabitants to wherever they were going. The road only headed in one direction, after all—ahead and down to the town in between us and the small town of Calderillas, or maybe, maybe even to the larger city of Tarija. We ran towards them, frantically waving them down. Apparently concerned as two soaked, frantic strangers appeared out of the nighttime gloom to stop their vehicle, they reluctantly rolled down the passenger window to speak to us.
"Hey! Hey! HEYYYY! Para donde van? Where are you going?
"Oh, we're going that way," they gestured vaguely.
"Great! Us too! Can we go with you?" Our tent and possessions lay abandoned across the valley, but they could surely manage just fine on their own.
"Oh, well, um, it's far," the wife in the passenger seat said haltingly, "very far."
Hailstones ricocheted off the car like lectured information off a student's brain as we grew, if possible, more desperate.
"Yes! Good! We also go that way! To Tarija! Please. Please!"
"No-o-o-oooo..." stalled the driver evasively in halting, Quechua-inflected Spanish. "We don't have room."
We peered inside. There were a couple other people in the car, but it wasn't full.
Their motives were a mystery, but their intention was clear: These strangers would not help us.
"Screw these people!" yelled Brother sagely as we abandoned the worthless Toyota station wagon, "Let's get to the farmhouse, it's getting worse!"
The barrage of ice now included specimens the size of grapes, seeking anywhere they could cause damage: our thin jackets plastered wetly against our skin, our exposed hands, our heads, our faces, stinging, welting, bruising.
Fleeing before these grapes of wrath, we stumbled along a side road to the darkened structure.
"Buenas noches! Hola! Anyone home! We need help! Anyone?"
There was no answer, save the uncomfortable bleats of livestock clustered in the corner of a high-fenced corral.
Facing the valley we found a couple sections of corrugated metal and adobe walls creating sort of open-sided garage. Ducking in, we perched on some spare tires, resolved to wait out the storm.
The car, curiously, turned up the same road we had.
It slowly approached the house, its lights at last illuminating us inside the garage that was, apparently, its home. The driver and his wife stared at us behind their dripping windshield, alarmed, nervous. We glowered angrily in return, rabid, betrayed, battered raccoons smarting from hailstones and lies. The car pulled all the way beneath the metal roofing, but stayed running, the lights bright inside.
We seethed, and waited.
As we sat, I was reminded of a conversation I'd had with a (friendlier) man in a nearby village earlier in the day. He told me of the herders and farmers who were abandoning the altiplano in increasing numbers as their crops and animals were killed by the hailstorms newly plaguing the region. No one even bothered with alpacas anymore, he explained, for they were entirely too fragile. Llamas, sheep and cows survived being caught out in the open better—for now, anyways. All the same, he planned to move to the city within a couple of years when his parents passed away; after a few more, perhaps his entire village would lay abandoned, piled rock fences, generations of cinderblock and stone houses weathering away into rocky soil.
The cacophony of hail against the roof returned me to the present. Before dusk, we'd seen the sheep and llamas of the farm returning from the hills of their own volition. Gathered together in the corners of their pen, their numbers and their thick wool offered some respite from the barrage. It would be interesting to see if their farmers had also lost livestock, but conversation looked unlikely as they watched us silently.
Ah, to hell with it.
Wiping my hands on my baggy dress slacks to clean off the black tire-grime, I approached the driver's side of the vehicle to see if maybe we couldn't reinflate this failed friendship.
"Hey, did you come from the city?"
"We came from Tupiza. We were looking for the Inca trail, but then this storm hit. Does it hail a lot here?
"We're camped in the valley, but the storm is really bad and it isn't safe to stay out. Can we stay here, until it lets up?"
This hit a nerve.
"There's an hospedaje in the valley!" the man spat. "You can stay there!"
"How far is that?"
"20 kilometers," said the man nonchalantly in the darkness.
The hell?! Hard pass.
"Look," I responded, "We're not trying to stay with you. We have a tent. We just want to wait until the weather gets better."
This wasn't entirely true—were he to offer us a couple square meters of floor to spend the night, we'd instantly accept—but we'd met enough hospitable house-dwellers in our travels to know he wasn't one of them.
I went back and sat on the tires, hugging my knees to my chest in the cold.
After a while, the hail and lightning lessened ever so slightly. Turning off his car, the man opened his door, peered outside, and rose meaningfully.
"Looks like the storm's over."
Thunder rumbling somewhere in the distance, we strode off scowling into the dark.
"The water is rising!"
"It's fine, I'm crossing, see?!?"
"It's getting higher, as—as we speak!"
But Brother had crossed. Even now, the stream grew deeper. Swearing under my breath, I took halting steps into the surging water. It was strong. Just meters downstream, the water narrowed and fell into a chute churning against the undercut side of a drop. I stepped forward as quickly as I dared, and not as carefully as I should've. The water. Stronger now. Pushing, dragging against my feet, making it difficult to set my feet down.
If I slip.
If I slip I will go into the chute.
In the chute I will die. I will die in the chute. Don't slip don't slip don't slip ah @&%
I do not slip. I do not go into the chute. I do not die. I do clamber onto the opposite shore, scaling up some small boulders half-drowning in the stream.
I am angry with Brother. I am very angry.
I yell at Brother. I point at the water. "IT. IS. RISING. A. FLASH. FLOOD."
He sees the water now, seemingly for the first time, the change from lazy, clear currents of ten minutes ago to the turbid, wrenching mass of brown liquid that separates two minutes and twenty feet ago from now.
"We have to cross!" he says, despairingly as he stumbles back down to the sucking shoreline, "We're gonna be stuck!"
The patch of land we've claimed is small, perhaps 40 feet long, perhaps twice as long as it is wide, bordered on one side by a steep, rocky slope, and on the other by what is now a river. It's somewhat flat, fortunately, and mercifully several feet above the churning waters. But the ropes of the old Inca bridge that once led across this bit of river are centuries gone, and we are going nowhere.
Brother is not yet convinced. More yelling ensues. I point out the spot where we'd crossed, the rocks that are completely submerged. We argue, and our words falter as a more persuasive sound is heard.
Rocks, hundreds of pounds each—more, maybe, are shifting and scraping in the riverbed. It is a horrible noise, stone against stone, an impossibly deep, concussive grind you don't hear as much as feel in your bones, in your skull, macerating, crushing, dragging. It's especially bad in the chute. This sonic embodiment of dread maroons us as effectively as the water. It's definitive. It's final. It's the first indication we might be here for a very long time.
It's raining, still, very hard. Brother is not doing well.
He is shivering, shivering a lot. He's going to be hypothermic, soon, if something doesn't change. He needs to get out of the rain.
What follows is perhaps the most pathetic tent-setting attempt on this forsaken peninsula in thousands of years. It's hard to set up a tent in the rain without it getting wet, but it should not be as hard as I accidentally make it, collapsing the poles halfway through and sending the collected rainfly water pouring into it, causing Brother to cuss in frustration. His fingers aren't working super-well, cold as they are. But we get it set up, we sponge it out with a t-shirt, and get Brother out of his wet cotton and into a dry-ish wool sweater. He's doing better, but he's going to be here a cold second. I unhelpfully abandon him inside and start walking around the tent, eyeing the river, suspicious the water will rise higher still, immersing the peninsula in our untimely demise.
The level stays constant, gratefully, but the level stays constant, frustratingly, and as the minutes stretch out into timed taffy it does not go down appreciably. We could be here for a long, long time, almost as long as that one time I’d once pranked a friend by filling up their apartment with crumpled newspaper and then I was waiting inside it for them to come back and be all kinds of surprised but like we couldn’t even hear anything in there, much less their surprise because we were like suffocating sad sasquatches in sartorial—anyways, that didn’t go well, and it’s a good thing this current predicament at least couldn't also end with me getting bitten on the elbow.
I puzzle at the slope above me. It's not as steep as I'd first feared, in fact, it looks quite climbable, almost some paths or something going up on top of that knoll there, though it would be right nasty if you slipped there, critical, even—
Half an hour later, I'm atop the hill. Up here, the ridges are more rolling l and I can see we'd be able to make it back to the nearby town if we needed to hike out from where Brother is camped below. It was curious, I mulled as I climbed back down, how quickly the waters had arrived.
It had rained since we'd broken camp for the morning and sought out the old Inca trail we'd come to hike. Our tempers had run short early on and we’d been so busy arguing we’d completely ignored the massive stone cairn marking its beginning, instead ending up clomping along a long-winding dirt road haphazardly bulldozed into the side of the mountain. Built without maintenance in mind, portions of it crumbled steadily into voracious gulches. We left it after a while, picking our way carefully down a ravine and stepped through the shallow river that would later trap us to the Inca path we'd spied from above, reveling in its sturdy cobbles. These would vanish as the path crossed a floodplain to a town, which, though inhabited, did not yield a single present person who could be asked for directions to where the path might lead next. We found it again at last, leading us then into the canyon, leading us to the spot where floods had abruptly choked our path. Why hadn't it been flooding the whole time? Had there been some capricious deluge upstream? Or had all the water converged here, all at once, and all of a sudden, like that flood that had nearly drowned our rafting camp in Sonoran Mexico's monsoon-swollen rivers the summer prior (floods, man)?
It mattered not. As I returned to the tent and discovered a rewarmed, irate brother uninterested in my discoveries or theories we discovered the river—while still higher than normal, but no longer full of grinding rocks—was crossable again. Soon, we'd backtrack some distance to confirm our path with locals we meet descending from a higher, longer footpath apparently used to avoid the river in high-flow times. We'd re-enter the canyon and cross the slackening waters carefully—passing crumbling pilings for woven bridges long gone—before ascending out of the canyon permanently along the Inca path, winding in lethargic lithic loops down the mountains, at last, to the city of Tarija.
Hiroshima of the Caucasus
Country: Republic of Artsakh/Occupied Azerbaijan/It's Complicated
Time: Summer 2017
Brother and I had decided some time before to visit the Republic of Artsakh, quite recently known as Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenian peoples and currently known to anyone else as occupied Azerbaijan. Artsakh was a classic example of a frozen conflict zone: Armenian territory for a long time, but also claimed by Azerbaijan with other territories, it had been swallowed up by the rising Soviet Union and in the power vacuum after the fall of the USSR, the oblast gerrymandered voting districts to exclude Azerbaijani voters, voted to join Armenia, some Azerbaijaini people attacked a nearby town, there was fallout, which escalated to a full-out war (mostly won by Armenian sympathizers), it has been under Armenian control ever since, and while it enjoys considerable Armenian support, it maintains its own government, its own passport, its own visa, and continues to fight Azerbaijani forces along its eastern border.
In the capital, Stepanakert, once, twice rides were offered to the city of Agdam. It was in the direction of Tigranakert, a restored castle in the region. As we negotiated with a driver to give us a ride, he told us he could take us as far as the junction leading to Agdam. Hopping out, a police officer on foot approached us and asked to see our documents and destination, which we provided. When asked, we told him our destination. He advised us to go directly, and to not take any detours on the way.
Too close to the front lines with Azerbaijan, he explained. Stray bullets, not safe, better we didn't go. We assured him we wouldn’t go to Agdam or whatever it was, because we were going to Tigranakert, to see a castle, gosh darn it, not some stupid war-frontier town. Satisfied, he wrote down our passport information and continued on his way.
A minivan arrived, then, a white junker of a vehicle, filled with a handful of jovial men and women bound, well, for Agdam, and we piled in. We chatted, but quickly enough we reached a crossroads. AGDAM, pronounced a sign pointing eastward, TIGRANAKERT, another sign, pointing north. We said our goodbyes and hopped out of the car, engaging hitchhiker mode. There wasn't much traffic, but we needn't have worried. After a half an hour, a man offered to take us northward, and we hopped into his sedan.
I'd been staring blankly out the window for a few minutes when I looked east and saw what appeared to be a ruined cluster of buildings. Cool, I thought, abandoned stuff.
The buildings faded away behind us as, inexplicably, I saw the structures again, crumbling, roofless. But hadn't we just—
No, different buildings. More this time. The plains east of us opened suddenly, sloping downwards to the east.
Agdam. This was not some war-torn hamlet on the frontier where bullets buzzed haphazardly.
Agdam. This was not some ghost town, a quaint place abandoned and left to rot.
Agdam was a ghost city.
Crumbling, roofless buildings stretched into the afternoon haze, empty streets, unattended cemeteries, blurring indistinguishably one from the other. Its scale, its extent, were difficult to puzzle out from the highway that had clearly been built to avoid it. Even so, some of its buildings crossed the road, reaching either side of us.
Tomorrow, I'd discover on my phone the history of a city of 39,000 inhabitants that was destroyed, pillaged and razed by the Armenian people (for comparison, the abandoned Ukrainian cities of Chernobyl and nearby Pripyat had 14,000 and 49,000 people, respectively).
Today, confused but fascinated, I'd take a crappy film that showed only vague impressions of something I didn't comprehend.
Tomorrow, I'd read how Armenian forces took control of the city and surrounding areas, expelling not just Azerbaijani forces, but routing the inhabitants, taking civilians hostage, in some cases executing them, burning, shelling, looting.
Today, I'd argue briefly with my brother about whether we should stop here at... whatever this was, but decide to keep on going, as transport was scarce.
Tomorrow, I'd learn Shushi, the nearby capital, had been built largely using the looted timber and stone of Agdam. Unlike other parts of Artsakh that were arguably 'reclaimed' by ethnic Armenians, however, Agdam had only ever been Azerbaijani.
Today, I'd explore an abandoned Muslim cemetery near the castle of Tigranakert, the distinctive crescent moon of Islam emblazoned on the headstones bearing Azeri inscriptions in a mixture of Cyrillic and older Arabic scripts.
Tomorrow, I'd discuss with my brother whether or not we'd get arrested for attempting to return here.
Today, we would be questioned by two different policemen about what we were doing in the area, one briefly checking our camera photos, presumably for pictures of the ruined city.
Tomorrow, we'd discuss the oddity of encountering soldiers from Russia and Eastern Ukraine in an Armenian-occupied area kilometers away from an Azerbaijani army allegedly also allied, and populated with them.
Today, later, we'd meet those soldiers at our small hotel, failing to ask any important questions, managing to find out only the most rudimentary smattering of information.
Tomorrow, we'd catch a ride with an amiable Armenian maxofacial plastic surgeon who routinely repaired soldiers' wounded faces from bullet wounds pro bono, sleeping just a few hours a night, knowing if he didn't do the surgeries, no one would.
Tomorrow he would tell us about Agdam, how there was an Armenian military presence at times but there certainly weren't bullets being fired (not there, at least), how three Armenian families now resided in Agdam, farming among the ruins, how Agdam was definitely a place worth visiting, worth driving around, worth walking around, haunting, unforgettable, something to not be missed. Hadn't we seen it?
(Author - Joaoleitao )
Tomorrow, we would be filled with regret at our near-complete failure to see and understand a place described by some as the 'Caucasian Hiroshima,' a disaster not even twenty-five years old.
Tomorrow, we'd realize the opportunity we'd unknowingly missed.
But that was all tomorrow.
Today, we'd never return.
Countries and Times: Various
While misery is far more amusing, there were also many nice moments, a few of which are here:
- A Gabonese man who two decades before met Peace Core volunteers sees us walking by his house, invites us over, feeds us steamed manioc sticks with meat and homemade hot sauce, shows us the masks the Peace Corps taught him how to make, shows his DJ setup, lets us camp outside his house, and pitches his own tent alongside us that night, camping with us so we don’t feel lonely.
- After trying to get my attention several times—and me ignoring him—a Congolese man in Pointe Noire points out I’ve dropped my Kindle on the street--very valuable to me, all our guide books were on it and it was a smartphone extender for internet browsing and communication with home.
- An academic sort in a Bangui, Central African Republic market explains a basket of edible caterpillars to us, and helps us get a fair price. Someone cooks them for us later in the evening, and as the power goes out, we eat them, a sumptuous one-course candlelit dinner.
- A Nigerian man on a minibus explains Nigerian barter culture to us, pointing out the reason we pay a higher price for things sometimes is not because people are deliberately seeking to take advantage of us as foreigners, but because the buyer is expected to make a counteroffer (and maybe several!) before a price is chosen, so don’t forget to counteroffer.
- Two college students on a public bus introduce us to Cairo, making sure we know what stop to get off to reach the area where we’ve told them our hostel is (congrats on your engagement, Mostafa).
- The people in old mission areas of Argentina and Paraguay who don’t remember we exist, but when they do, invite us into their homes to eat, to stay, to hang out, to spend time together, even Emma the cat lady, who along with her felines had once thoroughly hated my brother, but now they ate a New Year’s feast as friends.
- The people in old mission areas who remember we exist, and when we show up, they cry and make us feel happy, sad, and grateful.
- The guy who gave us an hours-long hitchhike ride in Argentina from a place we’d gotten stuck at on a random highway because he remembered a time when he was young when someone gave him a ride that really helped him out and he wanted to pay it forward. Also, if we talked, it could help him from falling asleep at the wheel!
- The Israeli girls in Bariloche, Argentina who saw us on the street and approached us to ask if we wanted to split lodging with them, shared fine chocolates from home, and then we all went hiking together the next day.
Middle Eastern Middle-Aged Cross-Examination
Time: Summer 2017
So there I was, minding my own dehydrated business in Doha, Qatar, a tiny country on the Persian Gulf whose only land neighbor is Saudi Arabia. I am having trouble determining exactly how hot it was that day, but it seems like it was about 91 degrees Fahrenheit at 6 AM, and possibly getting to 107 degrees later in the day, if my lookup of historical weather info is any good. It was easily one of the hottest places I (and apparently some other alumni board writers) have ever been. Now, I've spent time in some hot places—one summer, for example, I was moving around railroad ties in 105 degree weather at a government base in the desert—I could elucidate, but it sounds more dramatic like that—but good ol' Western U.S. heat is dry heat, so if the temperature fluctuates 15 degrees one way or the other no one really cares. It's just heat. Humidity, though, makes you feel like a sad, wilted piece of lettuce, the kind that gets sweaty as it suffocates.
IN ANY CASE. I do not know how hot it was in Qatar, but owing to its privileged location next to the Persian Gulf, the tiny nation of Qatar is hot and humid. Interestingly enough, it's the world's wealthiest country per capita, so ethnically Qatari people seem to be very affluent, and very scarce. In early 2017, Qatar's total population was 2.6 million: 313,000 Qatari citizens and 2.3 million expatriates of other nations. Really, the only place I saw Qatari nationals was inside a fancy-pants shopping mall with AC cranked up to full. Many of the people I met working construction, transportation and food-service jobs—the other 88% of the country, as I understand the demographics—were Indian, Nepali, Pakistani, Filipino, Bangladeshi and Ethiopian.
In essence, Qatar made me sad. I went to go look for an oryx antelope sanctuary but instead ended up being arrested casually by the police because I took a picture of an oil well, apparently illegal to in Qatar as their economy benefits greatly from the rich, chocolatey dinosaur syrup, and is existentially threatened by grainy, blurred images from a Kindle Fire tablet. Thusly, the authorities and I chatted it up for a bit in the nearby police station. This was, like, the fifth time I'd been arrested in as many weeks, most of the other times being in eastern Turkey for looking suspicious/like a hobo/an American hobo in regions of conflict, so by now I more or less had the whole being-questioned thing down pretty well. I mean, not really, but you can only detain someone for being an idiot for so long **knock on wood**.
The police went through my personal effects in an attempt to discover if I'd taken more pictures of their critical infrastructure, which I hadn't. What they did discover and review was many screenshots of people I'd found attractive on Tinder, which weren't in particularly good taste. To my abiding shame, one was even a girl with a dog-face filter.
Upon concluding I'd done nothing of interest, legal or otherwise, they began to ask me questions about my personal dating life.
"So, are you married?"
"How old are you?"
"For you, what is a good age to be married?"
Before long, I’d be dropped off at the same place I’d been swiped from the streets, and would demonstrate my learning abilities by promptly snapping a picture of the roundabout—you know, as a keepsake—which naturally, a new cop whipping around the roundabout saw, stopped me, and began to ask me what, exactly, I was doing… But enough about him, and about all those guys. They're married, and like the other married people I know—dead to me.
Country: Republic of Congo, Northern Region
Time: Summer 2018
Length: Shorter than the time it takes to get through a checkpoint
Registration—be it a foreigner’s passport or a local's carnet—is part of day-to-day life in Central Africa. It's quite the hullabaloo in le America, now, the questions about who can demand whose ID and how far from a border it is legal to do so and for what reason—guess what, you've already made up your mind about that, and so we'll talk about Central Africa instead, where no one cares what we think, and no one cares who you are, unless you can show your ID.
Napping at a checkpoint after a co-passenger without ID abandoned his things and escaped into the forest,
while the rest of us are kept for an hour until the police decide it's not worth their time
Passport control checkpoints litter Central Africa, and registering your document and journey is compulsory. A journey of fifty kilometers passing through five towns might have five checkpoints, one in each spot. Of course, more than one organization has checkpoints, so arriving in a small town of 500 might necessitate a visit to
—a military checkpoint
—a police checkpoint,
—a military police/paramilitary checkpoint; in Francophone countries: the gendarmerie.
The last tend to be the most egregious, a word here meaning "people who hassle you and ask you for bribes and are definitely the most likely to successfully detain you for something real stupid." and speaking with them always filled me with great cursing joy.
Driving down the road, you might encounter a few within minutes of each other, but you might not find any for miles, hours, even. In this northern part of Congo, though, we found three in quick succession. Most bribes can be avoided, if you have the time to wear them down, but our ride was very impatient and just recently, after a tense argument—fearing we’d be stranded on a road with almost zero traffic—we’d caved and handed over 3,000 CFA.
Irritated, we arrived at a regional police station, where the officer behind the desk was decidedly friendlier as he noted down our passport information. Behind him on the wall was a chalked sign:
C = COMPETENT
H = HONEST
E = EXEMPLARY
F = FIRM
“What’s that?” Brother asked.
“Our motto, [CHIEF], the policeman replied. “We need to be upright if we want people to respect us.”
“Yeah, that would be nice. The last guy we talked to tried to get a bribe from us. You gonna try anything like that, take our money for yourself??”
“Me? A bribe? No, no, that’s not ethical,” said the policeman, pointing to the sign.
“That’s a relief.”
We chatted about other things for a bit, and he finished writing our information down.
“Okay, that’ll be 2000 CFA each.”
“But you said—” we spluttered.
“It’s not a bribe,” said the officer, scolding us gently, “Everyone who registers their passport must pay the registration fee. Right?”
“We don’t have to do that.”
“Oh, you certainly do. It’s required.”
Brother and I glanced at our fidgeting driver, then at each other, reluctantly passing over the ill-gotten bills.
“Your sign,” Brother said, “it is quite nice.”
“Thanks! Competent, Exemplary and Firm!” said the officer.
And Honest.” Brother added.
“And Honest,” he agreed.
“That’s important,” sighed Brother.
“Very important,” said the policeman, smirking as we left.
*Checkpoint parrot unlocked*
White Christmas: Dinner with Dealers
Time: December 2016, South American Summertime
Musical accompaniments: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” -Cyndi Lauper, “Proud Mary” – Tina Turner,
“Chantaje” – Shakira, any bad eighties playlist
Brother and I walked from the bus terminal along the dusty streets of Villa Regina. This town in the Argentinian Patagonia—not the part with dramatic mountainscapes, but the usually unmentioned part that looks like arid Wyoming—had grown along a clear, shallow river, which it had siphoned off and spread across the shrubby steppes until it grew into apple orchards, those eventually razed and turned into cinderblock housing developments when world fruit markets tanked.The river remained, though, as did a public campground suggested by the lone bus station attendant when we’d arrived in town. We’d originally planned to stay with some friends my brother knew, but they’d ghosted us without explanation, and we hadn’t had time to reach out to anyone else. We’d had positive experiences at other campgrounds so far in Argentina, though, and we approached this one with weary optimism. We smiled as we regarded the dusty, but presentable, rows of campsites adjoining each other in the shadows of trees cast in the late afternoon light. In a squat brick building with flaking whitewash at the back of the campsite we found a policeman who claimed to look after the place.
Did it cost money?
Free, apparently. Communist Argentina.
Free was good. But was it, like, safe?
“Claro,” the token authority figure affirmed suavely, returning his attention to his box of cheap red wine.
We walked around, eyeing a clean spot beneath some eucalyptus trees. Nearby sat a man—perhaps forty-five, wearing a clean, weathered t-shirt and Puma shoes—sitting slumped at the adjacent picnic table bench.
He looked up at us as we moved to walk past him, forlorn expression lifting.
“Buenas tardes,” he ventured, and it hung out in the air for a moment like a windblown leaf.
“Buenas tardes,” smiled Brother.
“…Are you men of God?” asked the man.
An interesting greeting. No, like, pressure or anything.
“Uh… kinda? We go to church, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I knew it, I knew it,” said the man enthusiastically. “Well, my name is Oscar. I brought meat to grill for an asado, but I’m all alone tonight on Christmas. Would you share it with me?
We looked at the neatly tied plastic bag of sausage and chicken quarters,
and wood by his feet,
and back at him,
and then at each other.
At this moment—I do not exaggerate—I recalled the words of the penguin overlord Skipper to his portly pal Private from the Oscar-worthy, DVD-extra documentary short Madagascar Penguins: A Christmas Caper.
Skipper: …You remember the Penguin Credo?
Private: What does deep frying in Bisquick have to do with any of this?
Skipper: Not that one, the other one! Never swim alone! Alone! On Christmas! Don't you get it? Come on people, do I have to explain this to everybody?
Private: Poor Ted, he's all alone on Christmas, with no one to swim with…
“Ardilla?” said Brother, disturbing my Antarctic reverie.
“Wha—? Oh, uh, yes,” I said to the forlorn-looking man who I most certainly did not imagine to be a sad, animated polar bear in a cozy zoo. “We’d love to join you. No one should be alone on Christmas.”
Oscar smiled, relieved. “Nobody,” he agreed. Brushing off his faded orange shorts, he gestured to the table. “Have a seat.”
I set up our tent and belongings while Brother Feroz chatted amiably with our new friend.
I’d just gone with Oscar to the clear, burbling river to look for a grill rack, a piece of thick steel mesh he’d stashed in some willows at some earlier date. He’d seemed nice.
After a little bit, Brother came by the tent. “Listen. I, uh, think this guy’s killed people before.”
“Cool,” I replied brightly, half-listening as I inflated a sleeping pad, “Everyone needs a hobby.”
If you think at some level this inconvenient information should have registered alarm, well, you’d be right.
“Eh, I think he’s fine,” I declared, my lazy decree making it so.
I returned to the table, where Oscar was busy nearby trying to build a fire in the small stacked-brick grill he’d cobbled together. He wasn’t doing a very good job. Terrible, in fact, never having had the arsonous backwoods education common to all Boy Scouts. I watched him attempt to light the sticks on fire and waited as the weak flames died out once again. “How’s about I go get some twigs?” I announced to no one in particular, and set out around the park to rustle up some kindling.
It was a little trickier to find than I’d expected, so engaged as I was in full Befriend Mode I spotted a Nice-Seeming Extended Family camping some distance away and introduced myself, introducing myself cheerily and asking them if they had any twigs on hand. A woman in her forties—a parent? An aunt? A no longer appearing in this story—shrugged; the three teenage boys there apologetically said they didn’t have anything. “Not a problem,” I replied, “Not. A. problem.” and strolled humming straight on back to my campsite, unaware I’d just made a very serious mistake.
Back at camp, I brought my meager handful of eucalyptus bark to the fire, which by now was sparking hungrily. After a minute or two, the teenagers showed up with a few miraculously procured branches, donated to our cause as they glanced at our campsite slowly and returned to theirs.
Kind of them, I thought, at least they don’t seem to be pibes.
Pibe, it should be explained, is an Argentinian slang term denoting teenagers that also connotes loosely to “hoodlum.” It’s maybe the riskiest demographic in Argentina: Because they are immune to prosecution as minors, they’re sometimes recruited by street gangs to do dirty work without fear of repercussions, even murder, so it was said, at the time we were in Argentina a youth guilty of murder and his whole family had been relocated to another town at government expense to preserve his life, and innocence. Uncommon, but a possibility, and a strange aspect of juvenile delinquency.
But these guys, with us? Right pleasant, I concluded erroneously.
As the fire burned down, Oscar placed the coiled chorizo sausage on the grill.
Argentinian chorizo is less like the red, Mexican mincemeat and more like a German bratwurst. It cooks faster than other meats, and so it is eaten while beef, chicken or other selections roast further back on the grill. We shared it, relishing the crispy casing and juicy meat. The chicken finished cooking as the muggy dusk mellowed into the dark cool of evening.
We chatted with Oscar as we ate the roasted chicken—salty, smoky, practically perfect—and asked him what he did.
“I work with a group that helps get things done around town,” he said.
“Like, the government?”
“Oh, I work with the government sometimes,” he said evasively, offering us boxed wine, soda.
We reached for the soda as he settled back with his flimsy plastic cup of wine. “Yeah? What kind of stuff you do for work?”
“I make sure they keep their commitments,” he continued, “help deals happen, keep everyone honest.”
“Nice,” Brother said pacifically, “It can be hard to get things done in Argentina. Lots of government.”
“Oh, sure,” said Oscar, “But they come around… eventually.”
“Do people ever give you trouble?”
“Now and again, he said, lifting his jersey and indicating a dime-shaped scar on his abdomen, and a long scar across his forearm. “They don’t bother me now.”
I frowned, swishing soda around in my mouth.
“What did they do?” asked Brother curiously.
“Me faltaron el respeto,” he said, expression darkening. “They disrespected me.”
“Silly of them,” said Brother, pouring himself another glass of Fanta, and changing the topic.
After a few minutes, Oscar went into his tent and retrieved a small plastic bag.
“Do you mind?” he asked, squinting into the gloom as he measured out a dab of cocaine onto the corner of a blue credit card.
“Oh—uh, not in the least.”
Raising it into his nostril, he snorted and breathed deeply for a moment. “Oh… that’s good.” Brother and I exchanged a quick glance. It may have been summertime, but it had just become a white Christmas.
“See, that’s why I like you guys,” he sighed. “No me juzguen, you don’t care what I do. And we’re having a good time here, a real good time.”
“And we respect you,” I added strategically.
“And you respect me.”
Some movement from the edge of the campsite. The boys who had brought us some branches for firewood had returned, and they sat down. We greeted them and chatted for a bit. Oscar, fishing around his shorts for a moment, pulled out a joint, lit it, and took a drag.
He offered it to us—we declined—and then to the pibes, who accepted it matter-of-factly, the skunky odor mingling with the woodsy smoke from the fire, which had been rebuilt.
We small-talked with our new friends about Argentina and how they seemed like cool pibes, though not everyone here was like that, no, some pibes were punks. In fact, Brother said, that reminded him of a story.
“I was in Comodoro Rivadavia a couple years ago, in the south. These pibes, they were always messing with us, throwing rocks at us and stuff. My buddy Streadbeck, though, he gets an idea one day as we’re walking past some oil derricks. ‘Hey,’ he yells out to them, ‘You want to know a bad word in English?’ and of course they do, so they get closer. I pick up what Streadbeck’s laying down, so I roll with it, getting mad at him, telling him not to do it, which of course gets them all sorts of worked up. ‘It’s as filthy as it gets,’ he tells them, ‘so you have to promise you won’t say it to anyone. Ever. Okay?’ They promise, he pretends to change his mind, they beg, and as I pretend to get more worked up about it Streadbeck leans in and tells them. “Imma monkey,” he says, and he repeats it so they hear clearly. ‘But don’t say it to anyone, because—'
‘I’m a monkey,’ they all start yelling as we scream sadly and ask them not to say it, ‘I’m a monkey!’ They run off, apparently cussing, and really pleased with themselves.
Couple weeks after that I was with a different friend who spoke a little English. The pibes found us, began chucking stuff and yelling. My friend listens to them for a moment, and looks at me because he doesn’t believe it. ‘Elder,’ he asks, ‘are those kids yelling soy un mono?’”
Brother busts up laughing as he remembers. “And after—ha! And after that, we always knew when rocks were coming, because we’d hear someone screeching ‘I’m a monkey!’ and we’d see them jumping around, and throwing rocks. ‘I’m a monkey! I’m a monkey!’ “
The pibes sat quietly as the story finished.
“Ese relato no me da gracia.” said the closest pibe flatly. “That story does not amuse me.”
“Yeah…” said Brother, examining the maltempered youth more closely. “I don’t think it did.”
“I like your shirt,” said another of the three, gesturing to his green, floral Hawaiian shirt.
“Thanks, I got it from—”
“Give it to me.”
“This happens to be my favorite shirt.”
“Give me your shirt. “
“Give me your hat,” snapped Brother.
“Nice tent,” said Monkey Story-Hater maliciously. “I like that tent.”
“Your hat,” quipped Brother coolly.
Oscar, who’d been watching this interaction intently, had had enough.
“Hey,” he snapped at them, and spoke to us for a moment. “Not like that. These guys are speaking en serio.”
He turned back to the pibes.
“You want something from these guys? Huh?”
“No, we just—” they stalled, surprised at the sudden pushback.
“Just what, huh? Where y’all from?”
“…Cutral Co.” Cutral Co was not a nice place, but Oscar had them beat.
“Cutral Co, heh. Well, I’m from Barrio San Lorenzo, over in Neuquen, and we have a way of doing things. As a matter of fact, I’ve got a fierro in my tent right there—” he waved wildly in the direction of his unseen gun “—and if you want something, we can have it! You want their shirt, their tent? Their backpack? Let’s take it, right now! You and me, now. You wanna?”
The boys shrunk down in their seats, mumbling nervously.
“Oh, okay then. You don’t want it, so I hope you’re not coming over here, disrespecting me and my guests—”
“We didn’t mean to—“ they protested weakly, but Oscar wasn’t finished.
“—Hell, I’ve got friends in Cutral Co. They know everyone, so here’s to hoping you and I get along, yeah?”
After a few moments, the feral childrens awkwardly excused themselves, leaving us alone around the fire.
“Thanks,” we told Oscar.
“Yeah,” he said.
Camping in rooftop luxury in later days
As the night grew later, Oscar became progressively more inebriated as he drank more wine and continued to snort cocaine. We’d shared a meal with him, so we’d probably be fine. As he’d said himself, if he’d wanted anything we had, he could have taken it by now.
All the same, Brother and I had concluded that, perhaps, we should seek lodging elsewhere.
“This has been fun, but we’re thinking we may head out.”
“What? Head where? You’re camped here.”
“Oh, just into town, thinking we might, uh—”
“I see how it is. You come and you eat with me, and now you’re just going to leave?” asked Oscar, growing agitated. “Taking advantage of my hospitality, is that right? Me van a faltar el respeto?”
Christmas firecrackers fizzed and popped nearby as I thought of the scars on his stomach.
“No, no, nothing like that!“ we backpedaled, “We’re a little tired… misspoke. We meant we were thinking of going to sleep soon, is all.”
“Oh,” he said, calming a little, “but you can’t go to sleep before you meet my mujer.”
“No,” Brother fretted, “I suppose we can’t.”
“When is she coming?” I asked.
“One… two?” he hedged.
It was scarcely midnight.
The next hours were key: maintain a constant current of goodwill, ideally by creating common ground. Maybe we could talk about family? It turned out he was separated from his wife, who didn’t let him near their two sons anymore, which made him understandably angry and sad. Moving on, then.
I proceeded to employ a simple strategy, then, one I’d often used when locked in small-talk situations, called “blurt out random things you’ve vaguely heard about and nod enthusiastically until something sticks.” It works a treat for sports fans, who don’t really care as much what you have to say as much as if you appear riveted at their meta-analysis of total yards passed and offsides and batting averages and baskets woven. Sports was tricky in Argentina, though, where soccer allegiances precipitated murders and rivalry games had incited nothing less than riots.
Also, sports… well, sports are boring.
What, then, could we discuss for hours? We were scraping the dregs of the conversational barrel when I remembered a key piece of information.
Something curious about Latin America is that anywhere in it, everywhere in it, beneath the layers of cumbia, reggaeton, nortenos, bachata, mariachi, polka—or whatever else is regionally popular, amd certainly deeper than whatever fleeting club mix or pop song from the United States, is the indestructible, the unforgivable Eighties.
In Nicaragua, Michael Bolton’s husky crooning must compete in perpetuity with George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” and A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” In these lands, Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams” never sleeps and Queen has yet to bite the dust.
TV stations, too, screen forgotten horrors like 1986’s The Fly, interspersed with reruns of Rambo, while the Terminator cannot be far off. Small children are traumatized daily by reruns of Chucky; and Alien can never be fully blown out into the void of space, deep as it is within the hearts and chests of the people.
The nineties get remembered, but the eighties never die.
And so, in a feeble effort to perpetuate my own life, I invoked them.
“You like music?”
“Sure, some of it.”
“Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun?” I suggested, recalling a favorite often blared into the streets by burly Paraguayan men.
“ ‘Love is a Battlefield,’ a classic.”
“Mas o menos, no me gusta tanto,”
“Yeah, they’re lame now,” I agreed, shaking my head. Sell-outs.
Brother sat nearby, listening tiredly, useless to the cause: he’d long ignored pop culture, and knew, well, less than I did, which at the moment didn’t feel like much.
Why hadn’t I watched more TV as a child? So much time wasted in nonessential skills like reading, swimming and science. Why, why hadn’t I bothered to study something useful, like the complete works of Mad Max, or the copies of Top Gun and Dirty Dancing taped over our old VHS Christmas videos? Why hadn’t I memorized, perhaps, the soundtracks from Outsiders and Grease?
Best to just keep going, maybe mix in some newer names.
Too new, too teeny-bopper.
Much better, rest in peace… Shakira?
“Shakira,” he said, “so beautiful.”
“Hips don’t lie,” I agreed sagely.
“But you know who is more beautiful?”
Dubious such a category existed, I asked him to go on.
“Tina Turner,” he sighed wistfully.
Sounded familiar. Tina Turner. Tina… Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner? Probably not, better just pretend—
“Oh, right! That Tina! She was in, uh, she’s… an actress?”
“Not just an actress, a singer, too!” gushed Oscar.
“Oh, right—with the… songs in the… Eighties?”
“Yes, yes, exactly! ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero,’ ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It,’ And ‘Proud Mary,’, el mejor, we should watch it now.”
And pulling out his smartphone, that’s exactly what we did.
Rollin’! Rollin’! Rollin’ on the riveeeeerr! Tina proclaimed triumphantly to the tipsy campground.
Relieved to recognize the music, I was pleased I recognized Tina as well. As for Oscar, he was in a state of euphoric bliss that surpassed his gratuitous cocaine habit as he watched.
“The hair,” running his hands through his own as if it was Tina’s distinctive mane, “The legs.”
“Tina,” he moaned.
Finally, a woman approached the table out of the gloom. Oscar introduced us to her as she sat, eyes bored under heavy blue eyeshadow. She wasn’t interested in talking, and certainly not to us, and sensing an opportunity, we decided to call it a night.
“Well, it’s… 3 AM, wow, uh, we’re, uh, probably going to turn in for the night. Are y’all staying up?”
Oscar looked at his mujer mischievously. “Yes.” He turned to us.
“So I’ve helped you guys out tonight a lot, wouldn’t you say?”
“So let’s stay in touch. Give me your phone number.”
Brother and I share a look, hoping Oscar doesn’t notice.
“We don’t have a phone that works here in Argentina yet,” I reply slowly but truthfully, “our phone only works in America.”
“Not a problem, in fact that’s better, give me your number in America, so you can help me out when I get there.”
“We—uh…” I falter, as Oscar waits expectantly, but Brother, who spent two years here as a missionary, has been preparing for this moment for years with his deep knowledge of the fastest way to kill interest in a conversation.
“Good news,” says Brother, “Again, we don’t have a phone, but we want to be your friend, and you want to make sure you can find us after tonight. As it turns out, tomorrow, we’re going to church at 9, if you’d like to come?”
“Oh, uh… you know, that’s not really my scene, and besides I’ve just go this t-shirt—”
Airily, Brother persisted. “No worries, everyone’s welcome, we’re going dressed just like this, we’d love to have you—”
“Gracias, gracias, amigo, but I’m good.” said Oscar, shaking Brother’s hand and clapping it appreciatively in an affirmation of disinterested solidarity.
“Alright,” sighed Brother regretfully, “but if you change your mind, you know juuuuust where to find us.”
With that, we smiled, thanked him one more time, bade him good night, and entered our tent where we stared up at the tent, too tired to think, but afraid to shut our eyes.
We lay awake, the sounds of drunken partying never far away. Would the pibes shank us in the night?
Well, it was no use worrying about it. They would or they wouldn’t, and so we surrendered to exhaustion at last.
We awoke to the sound of a car idling near our heads in the early morning. Alarmed and fatigued, we unzipped the tent to discover a nearby unpacking his car. He’d just arrived at the campsite. We glanced around: Oscar appeared to be asleep in his tent, in fact, besides the newcomer, we were the only ones awake in the entire campground. As quickly and quietly as we could manage, we stowed our tent and strolled out of the park and the trees and the dust into the paved streets of Villa Regina, greedily exulting in the warm orange light of Christmas dawn.
Wholesomeness Interludes, Part II: Things Done To Us In Which People are Kind and Kinda Cool
Countries and times: Various
- This magnificent hard-boiled egg vendor in the Central African Republic. Look at him!
His mere existence makes the world a more eggcellent place.
- The juggling buddies we met backpacking in a national park in Colombia who traded us way more peanuts than was necessary for a few of the Gatorade energy bars we could no longer stomach because we thought packing 25 of them for a four-day trip was actually a suitable plan for food.
- The old ladies in a rural part of Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh who met us, and despite not being able to understand each other they took us into their parlor and we swapped pictures of family. They were making some food and later a different Armenian giving us a multiple-hour hitchhike ride explained to us they’d been preparing a special underground barbecue for us, but even when we left because we didn’t realize that (‘cause we’re dumb and culturally illiterate) they didn’t get mad, they were just kind.
- The peasant woman at an Ukrainian bus station who gave me and my brother 30 Ukrainian moneys—not a small amount, for a rural Ukrainian—when she saw my brother and I counting out change for bus fare near the Transnistrian border.
An older lady on a Ukrainian bus who looked me over, handed me a sandwich made with homemade fennel sausage and bread, pointed at herself, and told me, “Babushka.” #grandmapower
- Amazing couchsurfing hosts in a variety of places, and major bonus points to our host in Gabon who we accidentally locked out of his house overnight and when he couldn’t get in he was totally cool with it (he stayed over at a friend’s instead), he fed us delicious Indian food for days, and then helped us get a ride into the interior of the country with his work crew.
- A mulberry vendor in Gaziantep, Turkey, who liked that I liked her beautifull array of plump, dark mulberries enough and gave me a bottle of mulberry syrup to keep.
- A host in Cameroon who let me cook a meal for everyone (pasta with white sauce) in his kitchen using ingredients I found, this being the first chance I had to cook a meal in almost three months, this amounting to pure relaxation (side story—he told us how some people who worked in his warehouse killed a rat one day and then argued among each other about who got to take it home and eat it, this amounting to pure protein).
- The incredible and genuine Nigerian bronze artist who—despite knowing nothing about us and not knowing we’d existed more than a day—picked us up at a bus station, took us to his shop and showed us his work, took us out on the town to be nice (we don’t enjoy the same kind of night out on the town, but his intent was as sweet and sincere as the peanut-sauced goat cheeks he’d purchased for us were chewy), and helped us get a bus the next day into Lagos.
- My friend who let me stay with her on my way out of and my way into New York City, even though I am a raccoon of a person.
The First Cut is the Deepest - Meeting the Ba'aka People of the Congolese Rainforest
Country: Republic of Congo
Time: Early Summer 2018
Suggested Film Clip: “Song of the Forest: A Musicologist's Life in African and Urban Jungles,” because you can hear Ba’aka people talking and understand what they are talking about, and it adds a layer of depth I think is nice
After a failed attempt to get a Nigerian visa in Congo's capital of Brazzaville, we'd worked our way north to the city of Ouesso, Congo, where we hoped to visit Noubale-Ndoki National Park. It's one of the most pristine swaths and the few unlogged portions of the dense rainforest that stretches across much of Central Africa. We contacted the national park management to see if we could attend and were informed that we could not go to the park, it was full, why hadn't we made a reservation several months beforehand informing them when we'd arrive? We tried to explain the massive impracticality and folly of telling someone you'll arrive at a certain time when traveling overland without your own transport in Africa—and actually doing so—but the park simply did not understand overland backpackers, or, more likely—did not care.
As we'd been trying to contact these stinkfaces we were planning how, exactly, we might reach our next destination: the Central African Republic. We'd originally planned to exit Congo in a northwesterly direction to Cameroon, where we'd cross eastward into the tiny pocket of Central African Republic (or CAR) we were most interested in seeing, where we'd theoretically see a buttload of elephants, hopefully, then make our way overland to the capital city, Bangui, get a Nigerian visa, and then unite ourselves to a weekly UN convoy bound for the larger cities of urban Cameroon (not well-connected to the areas where we'd previously been). For a long time, we'd believed this to be the only road, until we got stuck in Brazzaville, Congo, and found out quite simply there was a road crossing from Ouesso across what we thought was roadless pristine impassible rain forest to the towns on the Ubangui river of Impfondo and Betou. This is like deciding you need to travel from Provo to St. George via California, if California was undergoing a civil war (which we all know doesn't happen until 2029), then discovering you could just take I-15. A journey of weeks whittled down to just a day or two... perhaps.
Indeed! Yes and greeting, product!
This meant we'd be able to travel to the capital city of the CAR directly from Congo. It also meant we might be able to see some cool primary rainforest in between. We took a bus from Ouesso to the small town of Pokola, where the bus stopped for a time, and we considered purchasing a motorcycle, because this was something we'd been considering for a while. But the purchase options weren't awesome, our motorcycle repair abilities were minimal, and what troubles might a motorcycle cause us up ahead? Still, it might be useful—
Our decision was truncated when a nearby pickup truck headed along our route offered to take us for a cursory fee (before Uber was even a dream, there was Africa, and every driver there already a taxicab, freight truck and bus rolled into one), and we clambered into the back, holding on to the frame, wedging our feet between bags.
Perched on top of the truck's cargo, we whistled along what looked to be a recently-made dirt road through the rainforest. Logging trucks with the gargantuan remains of forest trees also used this road, and we'd pull off to the side as they came towards us, their dust and diesel fumes settling over us in chalky clouds.
"Look," Brother commented as we resumed our journey. Despite not being near any town, we occasionally saw paths into the forest. People emerged from some of these. Shorter, perhaps around five feet, their build, clothes, and facial features were different from the people we'd been meeting so far in our travels. One carried an ax made with a wedge-shaped blade set into a sturdy branch.
These were the forest people, the Ba'aka. We were intensely curious to meet them.
"Should we get off here?" Brother wondered
"What if there isn't another car? We could be here for days."
"True. We should keep going."
We waved to the people on the edge of the forest, instead. They waved back, growing distant as the truck surged forward.
Thanry. The small logging town was our truck's final destination, and though we didn’t know it yet, we’d be stuck there for nearly a week. We registered our passports with the local police, and one of them offered to let us stay at his house, free of charge. We’d poke around the town pretty quickly and discover two things: it was small, all built around the logging camp, which didn’t seem particularly friendly—and it was surrounded by a number of Ba’aka encampments with their traditional thatched grass and leaf huts, an oddity, as they were typically nomadic.
But they were friendly, so we tried talking to a few of them, and after a day or two waiting in the town we decide to ask them if they could help us find some animals in the forest.
Sure, a few of the younger ones said, tomorrow.
Manioc fermented and steamed in leaves, a staple food of the
region. Pure starch. Gummy and dense in texture.
We ambled along the clay road towards the logging concession, ten young Ba'aka men with us.
A white pickup truck pulled to a stop alongside us. Inside was a European man—hair cropped close to his scalp, loose button-down shirt, some stubble—who appeared, if anything, utterly baffled by our presence.
"Who are... what... are you doing?
"Oh, we're North American tourists. We're going to the forest with these guys, maybe see an animal?"
"You? See an animal? Here?" The man shook his head. "There's no way you'll see something this close to town."
"Yeah, we know, just... yeah. We thought it would be cool to see the forest, see the logging concession, even, but..."
"You're interested... in seeing logging."
"Actually, we're quite curious, yeah."
He shrugged, and gestured to the back of the pickup.
The truck whistled through the straight, narrow roads piercing the lush rainforest. Brother sat inside the cab, chatting with our newfound host. I smiled politely, stiffly at the three Ba'aka men—teenagers, really—who'd we decided to retain with us for the day. They smiled back, genuinely. The owner and driver of the pickup was a Portuguese man named Nuno who was in charge of Thanry's sizable logging operation.
During our forced stay in Thanry we'd actually tried to visit the logging concession twice, first asking a truck driver, then a Malagasy man working at the concession headquarters. The first had offered to show us briefly for an exorbitant fee, and the second, some kind of higher-up, had apparently consulted with someone in another country before giving us the boot.
No hint of our existence or interest had ever reached Nuno, a part-time Marvel comic book collector and small farm-owner in off-months in Portugal, and here the leader of a very meticulous and extremely productive tropical timber operation. He'd spent twenty years in a logging operation in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo in a forest that largely no longer existed. He'd left his high-paying position when his boss had asked him to ignore too many rules and laws, and come here instead, where he'd been for about two years. He spoke Lingala—the regional lingua franca—fluently, and was well-regarded by his boss. In conference calls with other concession chiefs, his boss would chew everyone else out, cursing and screaming at them for not meeting quotas.
Nuno's boss would then address him, calmly, simply asking him to continue doing what he was doing.
What he was doing was a highly efficient logging operation. Each of the roads we traversed was carefully maintained to facilitate maximum timber extraction. Roads that ran east to west, along the path of the equatorial sun, could be narrower, just ten meters wide. North-south roads required more room, thirty meters cleared on either side. Swamps and bogs--their waters stained dark with the tannins of rotten leaves--were crossed by piling waste timber side-to-side, like toothpicks, and covered with soil until the optimal road level was reached.
He showed us a sheet of paper printed with a variety of colored dots.
“These are commercially valuable trees. Those marked in yellow have already been harvested. The green have been tagged for harvest. Red are either hollow or across too much swamp to make sense to log.”
Now and again the pickup would pull to the side of the road as a timber truck barreled by, the driver and Nuno acknowledging each other with a wave before we took off again.
Our first stop was a bulldozer clearing an extraction road for the next season. The dozer easily cleared small trees and brush, but paused at a tree perhaps eighteen inches in diameter.
“See, you can’t just run into the tree directly, because the root system is too strong,” Nuno explained, “but if you take out the buttressed roots on the sides—” The tree toppled, leaves shaking free as it hit the earth. We filmed, partly out of horror, partly in fascination. Nuno didn’t seem to mind—in fact, he encouraged it. “You’re not from Greenpeace, are you?” he laughed. “I’ve actually got some good friends at Greenpeace, but some others don’t like me so much.”
After checking in on a bulldozer elsewhere—quite stuck in the mud, and needing a part Nuno would later fetch from the town—we stopped at a staging area. In this large, cleared area, cut and stripped logs were hauled out of the forest by a tractor with a massive claw and dropped in piles. From here, they were stacked on the timber trucks and sent out to the lumber camp. Some of the trees were big—a single tree trunk might fill a trunk. More commonly, two or three were stacked.
“You can go in that way if you want,” said Nuno, indicating where the logs were emerging piecemeal, “but be careful. The driver of that machine is a crazy worker and he might not see you when he’s driving.” The maniacal machine visible in the lot at present, we traipsed down the battered path, our Ba’aka guides accompanying us. One of them spotted what appeared to be a hollow partway up a tree. After inspecting it for signs of bees, he concluded it didn’t have honey. Selecting a nearby vine, he wrapped it around his waist and the tree trunk in a simple, but effective harness and showed me how he would climb the tree, if he were so inclined, leaning backwards against his braced feet and hopping the vine up the trunk. After fifteen feet or so, he carefully brought himself downwards. I tried to follow suit, but I was too big, too unskilled, and well, too weak. We picked our way out to the staging lot, pausing a couple of times on the side to avoid being crushed by a machine dragging half a tree deftly by us. Back at the lot, we met the log-hauler. “You work hard, we hear.”
“Yes,” he beamed, “very hard.” He’d gotten a bonus for being ahead of schedule, in fact, everyone on the logging team was doing better than usual. This was a miniature dry season in the year, and logging could only take place when it was dry.
We asked Nuno about the Ba’aka in the region. Did any live near by? “Oh, definitely,” he said, “Why, are you interested in meeting them?”
Near dusk, we followed our Ba’aka guide into the forest, not far distant from the hauling lot. We’d gone back into town and grabbed our stuff, and Nuno had dropped us off. Two of the Ba’aka guys we had with us had opted to stay in the town, but one, whose name was absolutely not Timmy, but who we’ll call Timmy, had decided to accompany us.
This area of the forest, a healthy canopy overhead, meant walking along the forest floor was simple, and we followed a faint path until we saw a group of small, domed structures made of interlocked branches and shingled with draped leaves. We’d reached the Ba’aka encampment.
(ardilla sez: Improve your experience with this section by playing traditional Ba’aka music now)
We sat by the fire as the Ba’aka group we were with danced and sang. I’m not sure how this event precipitated, whether they’d already planned on singing together, or if our visit had prompted it—but it was happening. We’d brought our own food from town for dinner and offered some to our hosts, in turn, they’d offered us a piece of honeycomb wrapped in a leaf.
It was sweet, fruity, woodsy, and earthy, an experience borne of a tremendously skilled climb to a hole in some lofty tree trunk, and eating it felt like a true privilege.
Ba’aka vocal musical culture is probably among the most advanced in the world. Whereas Western music, overwhelmingly, chooses one melody (monophony) or one melody accompanied with instrumentation and perhaps harmonies (homophony), the Bayaka often employ polyphony: multiple melodies, occurring independently of each other, at the same time.
Complex vocal rhythms and patterns and pitches interweave and intersperse, yet everyone—child, grandmother, brother—knows their part, everyone participates, making music together.
Dances—characteristic to the region, I would later discover, though I know little and understood even less in the moment—sometimes accompanied the songs. The father of the group made use of a bedsheet and woven hip band as a costume, acting as a character who would hoot as his daughters sang, moving and twisting, sometimes disappearing beyond the ring of shelters before returning. Brother and I tried to clap along as we could, but our contribution here was, well, pretty pathetic.
Timmy sat nearby in his soccer jersey and jeans, watching, listening, but not really participating. Perhaps he was thinking of getting more “giga,” more memory for his MP3 radio. He’d told us repeatedly of his plan during the day, and, feeling awkward, we’d pretended we didn’t understand.
The music and dancing went on. The experience felt surreal, so far removed from anything I’d known. They sang for a long time—hours, perhaps—but it ended almost as suddenly as it began, and people prepared for bed. We were told we could pitch our tent in the middle of the circle of huts, where the dancing had taken place. The sap candles went out, and the camp was immersed in darkness and the sounds of the living forest.
Brother and I woke up next morning before anyone else. Our guide, perhaps disturbed by our stirring, woke up next. He expressed marvel at the sewn-together sheet I’d lent him for the night—I’d made do just crossing my arms and legs and shivering hard every now and again—and I tried to show him there was nothing crazy about it—it was just an old sheet, sewn together at the edges, he probably had something similar in Thanry, because people did have bedsheets there.
We packed up the tent and waited. Slow wisps of smoke—made by the slowly smoldering fires set in the entrance of each open-faced shelter—rose into the forest above. Waking, the mother of the group stoked her fire and cooked some tapioca starch (traded from the town, perhaps?) and shared it with her young son. Soon after, two of the older teenagers returned from elsewhere from a hunt in the forest, thin, barbed spears in hand. We hadn’t been the first awake after all.
Distantly, but distinctly, the roar of a diesel engine could be heard. It grew louder and switched into idle, then honked. The women from the group leapt to their feet, and chattered excitedly as they ran for the road. Brother and I exchanged a look, and followed.
We pushed through the thicker brush that lines open areas in the forest and emerged on the road, where loggers, dressed in orange safety suits with reflective tape—were handing the Ba’aka packages: cassava starch, bread, cornmeal. Seeing us, one we recognized grinned.
“So how was it?” he asked.
Back in the Ba’aka camp, we’d gone back to pick up our stuff. The logger we’d spoken to—we’ll call him Jean—was there, snapping pictures with an old digital camera and showing them to the Ba’aka, who were interested. I focused on snapping up my backpack instead, not sure how I felt about it all, although I myself had been happily taking pictures the day prior.
“Hey, do babies do this in your country?” asked Jean. He pointed at a toddler in a mother's lap, placidly puffing on a joint of marijuana in the morning chill.
A trained photographer would have snapped a picture, but I am not one, and so the chance of the picture of a lifetime—self-fumigating infants, so hot right now!—was lost when I objected loudly, babies smoking weed apparently needling my prudish Western sensibilities—and the mother quickly snatched the joint and stuffed it behind her back.
The Ba’aka don’t grow marijuana, I’d later learn, but increasingly it has been traded to them by Bantu settlers who use it to get things they want. Harder stuff, too, narcotics even, and once they were hooked they’d hunt animals they’d normally leave alone—gorillas, elephants—to trade them to traffickers who’d sell them piecemeal to China. Nuno had driven one to the hospital, once, he’d been attacked by a silverback gorilla after he’d shot at it with an old AK-47.
Over the course of the day, we’d go to another Ba’aka camp nearby and talk to them. Not sure what to talk about, and not having a common language, we asked them the names of objects and animals we saw around their camp, and they kindly obliged. I have a decent short-term memory for vocabulary, and before long I’d picked up perhaps twenty or thirty words, which I now used as I pointed at random things, asking for their names. They seemed to appreciate me learning, and despite some social faux pas moments we were able to establish a decent rapport.
Jean showed up again with another logger, apparently the location of each of the camps was well-known by the loggers, who seemed to view them as curiously as I did. Jean noticed someone cooking something, shaving bits off a dense, chocolate-like disk that goes by many names, forest peanut among them. I wasn’t sure how it was made, but I’d later found out that the effort involved in making one amounted to probably two days’ work. Jean bought it for 750 CFA, maybe two dollars—a steal. It probably seemed fair to him, though, and at least he didn’t take advantage of them as the same way people did in town.
Money was not something many Ba’aka in the area had used, and its elusive abstract value was difficult for them to place. Even if someone fairly paid them for something they had done—let’s say a large sum of 10,000 CFA, unethical shopkeepers might pocket most of the money and return a couple of 500 CFA bills, the five suggesting a bigger number, the forest people accepting it, not knowing how badly they’d been cheated. We’d seen the Chadian shopkeeper in town cuss them one out and take a swing at one, when we objected, he said they were “thieves,” even when nothing had apparently been touched. They were regarded as trash and outsiders, even though likely none of the Bantu or Chadian townspeople had lived in the area before the town was created not many years prior.
But they were the original inhabitants of this forest, and had been for thousands of years. As we headed back to the forest road, we watched them deftly split forest peanuts they’d gathered, and catch amphibious mudfish from murky ponds they bailed out, dispatching the wriggling creatures with machetes as they found them, tossing them aside in a pile for later.
The afternoon arrived, and so had our time to depart. Thanking our Ba’aka hosts via Timmy as best we could, we walked somberly back through the jungle and on to the road, climbing into the pickup truck, breathing the heady mix of dust, exhaust, and forest.
Seven Sorta Salient Shorter Stories
You’ve read this far? I’m impressed, grateful, and sorry, all at once. As a token of my awed, sympathetic appreciation I’ve cooked down some longer things to the chicken condensed-soup and wobbly green bits.
Lengths: Blips, really
Quest for the Rainbow-Butt Monkey (Gabon)
In hopes of glimpsing the world’s largest troop of mandrills, Brother and Ardilla explore the savannah-rainforest mosaic of Gabon’s Lope National Park. To their dismay, they must avoid forest buffalos, watch fearfully for rock pythons hiding in muddy ditches and try to avoid an annoyed elephant slowly pursuing them through the brush after it concludes they (accidentally) came too close to its baby. At long last, they see the monkeys leaping maniacally across a huge gap in trees, their technicolor behinds clearly visible as they arc downwards—look, a double rainbow!—and on the way home—for a moment— they stumble across a fluffy baby leopard in the open, deciding they’d better go when its hidden mother threatens them with a yowl from the trees.
You Otter Believe It (Paraguay)
Journeys into Paraguay’s wild Chaco yields a variety of frustrating things, but also a four-day upriver "cruise" for $25, piranha fishing, giant otter spotting, and hitching a ride with government propaganda officials back to civilization, our self-declared protagonists narrowly escape when rain turns roads into ponds and thick, sticky mud. Naturally.
The North Korea of Central Africa (Equatorial Guinea)
Deserted, perfect highways, ubiquitous security cameras, and an unfinished Dubai-like city in the middle of the rainforest are just a few of the things Ardilla will encounter in Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country. He and his brother will successfully track down real North Korean doctors discreetly operating in the cities, deal with corrupt local bureaucrats who have seized his passport, and later be threatened at gunpoint by an irate checkpoint guard after they try to bluff their way through.
Ego Trip (Ardilla, Bolivia)
I’ve previously made an effort to go to Haleakalā National Park in Maui pretty much because it was a Board writer’s namesake, so when I discovered on a map the nearby mountain town of Ardilla, Bolivia, well…
We stepped off the bus, Brother unsure about this stupid plan, but I reassured him, and we checked to make sure we had all our stuff, only to realize our wallet was missing: speedily vanishing into the distance on our disembarked Cochabamba-bound bus. We chance to find someone nearby willing to give us a ride to chase it down, and at length we do, stopping the bus, paying our rescue-driver, and discovering the wallet wedged in between the seats of the bus. Shamefaced, we sit down and keep moving forward, abandoning my foolish plan to go somewhere just for the name and a Board story, which I got anyways.
Turkey Turkey Turkey Turkey Turkey Turkey Turkey Turkey BATMAN, BATMAN
Whilst visiting the soon-to-be-submerged ancient canyon city of Hasankeyf, I discover on a map the nearby city of… Batman, Turkey?!? After going to a considerable effort, and without having looked at the doomed ruins we’d come to visit, we wrangle a couchsurfing host in Batman, a gracious if disinterested scholar who had his computer and pictures confiscated by the police after he took pictures of Kurdish areas the government had destroyed near the Iraqi border.
Şırnak, deliberately demolished by the Turks when residents left, pressured by a months-long curfew. This is after they've had time to clear rubble.
I try spicy, salty purple carrot salgam soyuk juice in this town, and we do identify our favorite brand of Turkish ice cream so far, but overall it seems like the amount of effort was disproportionate just to go somewhere foolishly just for the name and a Board story, which I’d get anyways.
But there were a bunch of kids in a minibus dressed as Spider-Man(s), which was sweet.
And yes, we saw the doomed canyon city.
Ticked Off (Paraguay? Georgia? I dunno, dude)
I’m not sure if this was supposed to be about the forty-one ticks I discovered in 24 hours in the Paraguayan Chaco (so, so gross) or about the time Brother and I lost the trail hiking over the mountains from Svaneti, Georgia and broke down into an argument where we for some reason only yelled at each other in bad hillbilly accents for half an hour, but I reckon ain’t nothin’ more here needs to be said in either case, see?
A layover in Peru is the perfect opportunity to visit Brother’s mission buddy in the mountains, but we didn’t plan on the torrential mudslides plaguing the area. But what’s a raging river of mud between a couple of buds? We catch the last transport out of Lima, which gets stopped near our destination, and we abandon it, covering the last half-hour on foot walking along mud-filled streets, and we stroll into town to discover the way is blocked by some little—okay, wait, that’s nuts. But eventually this specific mudslide subsides, and they join an anarchic crowd crossing the nasty remnants of the muddy flow to eat rotisserie chicken with their friend.
City, Seven Hills, Yaounde
Pineapples for thirty cents
Steal back stolen phone from thief guy
Peace, Yaounde. Man, you suck.
Claw of the Enemy (Cairo, Egypt)
A fiendish encounter with the ancient and resurgent evil perched in wait in these arids lands—I refer, of course, to the Evil Pigeon Overlord, and the final battle to destroy the nemesis of the beleaguered International Pigeon Banishment Society.
As for the Pigeon? It was delicious.
Nevermore (Republic of Georgia)
Ardilla and Brother hear of a ruined city on a remote Georgian plateau. A dog adopts them and they can’t shake it as they hike up to the site to discover only one building standing, an ancient, windowless Armenian chapel made out of dense black rock. The ground outside is littered with human bones churned up by moles to the surface. They decide it’s perfect for camping, until an approaching storm and a deep-rooted fear of lightning force them inside the church, where they set up their tent and accidentally disturb a deeply confused raven which bounces and skitters off the walls. In the morning, they feed the rest of their khachapuri cheese bread to their adoptive dogfather and try and find a shortcut down to town, which leads to them walking down on top of some weird hydroelectric tunnel and finding themselves behind a chain link fence at the bottom, after hopping it they must figure out how to get their canine companion to safety (spoiler: they do, and it follows them to the highway where they catch transport but forget to say goodbye to their furred friend).
Eastern Turkey. Each day brings a new city, entirely unlike the last, egg strata of history congealed upon the crumbled shells of fallen empires, their lives long ago consumed by ruin. Did they know they would not last, could not last? Their fortresses and shrines now lay silent.
Another day’s travel brings another civilization, another modern city of countless lives lived built around its bleaching bones, yet another thing I’d never supposed to exist, and my utter ignorance of it all eats at me, gnaws at the bounds of my self-centered complacency. How could I not know? How much do I not know? My insignificance pains me, my life a fleeting bubble of a moment on the currents of oblivion. I comprehend for a moment, and I am afraid.
I still am.
Rules of the Game
After travelling for a while, you start to notice rules you’ve created for yourself. Here’s a few of mine.
- Big cities tend to be crappy and expensive. Unless you’ve got some great reason for being there—cool archaeological museums, visa applications at foreign embassies, cheap accommodation—get to rural and wild areas as soon as is practical.
- Use apps like MapsMe and Gaia over Google Earth, which will betray you. Ideally, take enough power to keep your things electrified.
- Don’t leave your power bank andmost of your stuff outside a castle unattended, in the open. If you do, believe people you meet when they tell you they’ve taken your stuff.
They're probably stealing it right nooooow. Van Kalesi, Turkey
- Travel only in the daytime. Why would you travel at night? You can’t see out the scenery. If you’re going to go somewhere, you may as well stare at it blankly as it goes past your window.
- Window seat, obvs, is important. If you're traveling with two people, pick seats on opposite sides of the aisle and haul those curtains wide open.
- No double-tracking. Don’t leave a region the same way you entered it. You’ll get a better feel for the place you’re in, and you’ll use your time better by seeing new things. You’ll also end up some places you wouldn’t otherwise, like obscure mountain towns where visitors just don’t show up.
- If you absolutely can’t avoid double-tracking, it is permissible to take a night transport back the way you came, you’ve seen it already.
- No disposable water bottles, because buying water is for suckers. Check and see if local water is safe, and drink it if the general consensus says its fine.
- Check from more than one person, lest you find out the water was coming from a rusty tank that probably had dead animals in it and gave you nigh-uncontrollable runs for four days.
At least the water ran here... sometimes. At least there was a toilet.
- If the water isn’t safe, purify water.
- To save your supply of water purification tables, drink hot liquids when possible—porridge, atole, soups, whatever it is people are selling. If you’re going to buy liquid, get juice, or maybe a weird flavor of soda. Glass/reusable bottles are ideal.
- Try local food, but ideally street food or booths where food is hot and fresh, and cheaper than larger sit-down restaurant establishments.
- When buying street food—try to dissuade people from giving you disposable plastic bags or cutlery as much as possible. Provide them with the bag you keep in your back pocket and the spoon you’ve saved. But sometimes you’re going to get a new plastic. Get rid of the old one one when it’s too nasty and use your upgrade.
Grilled plantain and a... thing that is like a sour, roasted avocado. Idk, man. Digging the repurposed homework, tho
Treat yo'self! Spaghetti and bean sandwich. #ketolyfe
- If there is a regional language, learn greetings and basic vocabulary as quickly as possible. It’ll endear you to people you meet, and those who don’t mean you well might think you’re street-savvier than you really are.
- If you’ve used a regional language greeting that a minority group dislikes because they used to be at war with them… learn from the experience just give up.
- Make use of the way you’re traveling. On foot? Hike one way into the mountains and come down somewhere else without having to worry about a vehicle. Rented a car? See things you wouldn’t be able to see with public transportation. Sleep in your car instead of a hotel.
- Make sure no one puts gasoline in your diesel car.
- Keep receipts so you’re not liable for damage caused by any fuel mistakes **sigh**
- It’s probably better to just go on foot.
- Hitchhiking doesn’t seem to work very well (maybe you have to not be two adult men for this to work well?), but, like, it might work, so try when it makes sense.
Be prepared for other hitchhikers to betray you when it doesn't work out and he takes the last remaining bus ticket out of town, meaning you end up at your destination late on Christmas Eve in Argentina (see White Christmas: Dinner with Dealers). Rest in pieces, Juan. But you did teach us you could camp at gas stations, so... we're even. Maybe.
- Accommodations: Couchsurfing is often ideal, but the point of Couchsurfing is mostly social interaction with your host, so if you’re emotionally burned-out or don’t have the time to get to know them, just find your own place.
- Booking.com is a good option to find lodging, but it doesn’t work everywhere.
- The second-cheapest lodging is probably a good mix of inexpensive and tolerable.
- If it has a toilet seat and toilet paper and running water, it’s probably your best option.
At least they had a toilet.
- Opportunistically ask about places to camp. Gas stations, Catholic churches, and national parks are all great candidates.
- Camp on the edge of town, if it seems safe enough. If it’s not, wander around for hours in a state of paranoia until you find a place that seems “good enough” where you’re more-or-less hidden, or just pay for the stupid hotel.
- You can generally tell if someone means you well or means you harm within the first couple minutes, so if a situation seems weird, it’s probably better just to go.
- If it’s bad and you can’t leave, better make friends, fast.
- Please, just go.
- Some experiences are worth the money, and money is only useful when used. You’ll probably never be back this way again, so you may as well Do The Thing.
- The point of travel is to… uh, who knows. Wow, this sure isn’t much fun sometimes, but remember it’s not much fun at home, either.
- If you have pictures of garlic honey, find some way to share that with the world.
Boke of Ardilla, Chapter 28
Time: Summer 2017
Length: look you can already see the end, it's a christmas miracle
Wherefore in his twenty-seventh year Ardilla went unto the Albuquerque Station of Gas, and while near the Receptacle of Trash he spied a fortune cookie therein, and much pleased he fetched and did eat it, for it was delicious. But the Cookie of Fortune had words of reprimand also, and it spake thusly from the depths of the dumpster: "Great ambitions make great men."
And Ardilla was sore offended, saying, "It is a hard thing this cookie speaketh unto me, yea, more than I am able to bear, how can this ethnically ambiguous wafer crisp of fate know the desires of my heart?" But his protests were in vain: the situational irony was apparent, and lo, the burn was real.
And he did seek to put it out of his remembrance, wherfeore he journeyed far upon the face of the land for the space of many days; myriad were the things he saw and did, and for a time he did forget.
But upon the morn of his twenty-eighth year as Ardilla did awaken from the hallway floor on which he slept he did eat of a yellow Reeses Piece ferreted out from beneath an airport bench, wherefore, he did remember the portentous words of the omen biscuit, and was afraid.
--Boke of Ardilla, 28:1
Civil Wars, Consulates and Other Inconveniences
Locations: Cameroon, Central African Republic
Time: June and July 2018
Length of this monologue: so freaking long but trust me it felt longer to me
Songs stuck in my head at this time: “Peaches” - The Presidents of the United States of America
“Delta” – C2C (an important goal being to traverse the delta of Nigeria’s Cross River), “Tarzan Boy”-Baltimora, “Slide” – Calvin Harris ft. Frank Ocean, Migos (too much mud)
We fidgeted in the paramilitary station. Somewhere in the distance, a burst of semi-automatic machine gun fire could be heard.
“Where are you going?”
Sighing, we told the paramilitary official the same thing we’d told the man who first stopped us at the checkpoint..
“Nigeria, via Bamenda.”
“You are not permitted to go. It is forbidden.”
Through the window behind him a minibus crammed with passengers could clearly be seen, waiting half an hour after we’d failed to clear the checkpoint and were taken inside the office, unable to go, our bags still tied to the roof. We hoped being associated with them would help us move ahead, but the man sitting at the desk before us had other ideas.
“It is not safe for you to be here.”
“We’re just passing through.”
“It is not permitted.”
He left the room and called someone on the phone. As we waited, distantly again a burst of gunfire—the third time this morning.
The military policeman returned and beckoned. “Come.”
We were instructed to get our bags off the minibus, and we did, explaining to the driver and curious passengers that we weren’t allowed to continue. They wished us good luck and smiled sympathetically as they left us, and we turned and walked back to the station where a gray paramilitary truck sat waiting.
I regarded it skeptically. Bullet holes pocked the sides, scarring the metal shields rimming and protecting the truck bed.
Dubious about the arrangement, I shrugged clambered into the back of the truck, perching on one of the back-to-back seats inside.
“Non,” complained the driver. “Inside.”
I hopped out, leaving my backpack in the bed.
“Your bag with you,” he groaned.
Brother and I hopped in the back seat of the cab, and two soldiers with impressive rifles crouched in the back. A female officer hopped in shotgun, resting her rifle in the crook of the passenger-side mirror, the burly assault-caliber weapon angled outward. The driver fastened his seatbelt, rolled his window down partway, and draped his flak jacket over it to protect himself from bullets—that’s how that works, by the way—and we were off.
While the minibus we’d rode in earlier in the day was far from impervious, as a commuter vehicle filled mostly with English-speaking locals, an attack on it—not unheard of, but rare—posed little strategic advantage for the English-speaking rebels vying for control of the region. Why attack your supporters? It was a terrible target.
The paramilitary pickup we now inhabited, though—this gunship of the gendarmerie was an excellent choice. They knew it, too. We lurched and roared back the way we came, past a burned-out beer truck on the side of the road. Perhaps it had been destroyed when it had caught been operating in defiance of the Monday ghost towns (here a serious newscast, and here an amateur, short, superior priceless one), when separatists called for businesses to close and transportation to cease as an act of protest. It was difficult to know the cause, but the result was the same—the ground coated in shattered glass from exploded bottles, steel frame rusted and charred, a memory of flames.
Our ride scarcely slowed as we entered Buea itself, laying on the horn as we roiled through the bustling streets, peopled dodging out of the way. Great way to make friends, I thought.
Leaving the market, we advanced quickly through the rest of the town; at length, we were delivered to the top floor of a four-story beige-and-orange building. Here we were placed with some low-level lackey who babysat us while we waited.
She was an English-speaking Cameroonian, notable here, because the intense conflict in the area was between French and English-speaking political groups. We made small talk, and after talking for a little she conspiratorially divulged English-speakers were never allowed to rise in the government, even in an English-speaking province. The French didn’t want anyone else to have influence or control. Don’t tell the others she said this, she implored, because she could get in trouble, lose her job, even. Before she could go on, the door opened and a variety of men—some in paramilitary uniforms, some not—piled through the door.
“That one speaks French,” sniffed the driver who’d transported us, indicating my brother, who scowled at being ratted out. Playing dumb was officially off the table.
One man in military fatigues—tall, muscular, mid-forties, sat behind the chipped desk and regarded us.
“I am Commander Tchinda. I am the chief of the Paramilitary in Southwest Region."
He asked us what we were doing. We told him we were going to Nigeria, and that we were taking the bus to get there. He groaned.
“You cannot do that. It is not safe for you.”
“We asked before we came,” my brother rebutted, “people have told us it is not a problem for us.”
When we’d first set foot in Cameroon several weeks ago we had been asking people—citizens, police, officials—constantly if they thought the conflict area would pose an issue for us. It was a conflict between French and English-speakers, right? We were English speakers, could that be bad?
(This particular conflict had roots in an area of Cameroon that had formerly, like Nigeria, been under British control. It was now Cameroonian, but many of the people had no desire to remain united with the French-speaking regions of the country, citing years of abuses and lack of local rule. It’s complex, and I’ve certainly oversimplified, so you can read about the Anglophone crisis in detail, if you’d like.)
People would often scoff, insisting it was about so much more than just the language, tell us we wouldn’t have problems, and end with the same phrase: “You will not have problems. This does not concern you.”
Commander Tchinda was not exactly receptive to our line of thinking, nor our sense of urgency.
“You… need to go to Nigeria? Why don’t you just take the plane?”
“We don’t have money.”
Unfathomable, in a place unfamiliar with low-budget backpackers, but true. We’d practically hemorrhaged our funds as we traveled in rural places where the price of transport—three people on a motorcycle, usually—was exacerbated by fuel that cost as much as $16 USD per gallon.
A thousand-dollar, ninety minute flight wasn’t in our budget.
Our conversation continued like this for some time, us insisting this was our best option, them replying it was not possible, us rebutting that verifiably it was not, if they kept stopping us at checkpoints, but if they allowed us to just go through—?
Frustrated at our apparent lack of comprehension, Commander Tchinda pulled out his phone and dialed.
“Here. Your embassy will explain it to you.”
The phone picked up immediately. After a contracted, congenial conversation, he passed the phone to us. On the other end was a professional-sounding American voice telling us that we had no legal obligation to tell them who we were, but that if we’d like, we could tell them our name and who we were.
Like, okay, I guess.
The voice on the other end of the phone perked up. “Oh” it replied smugly. “We’ve heard of you.”
ARDILLA groans. This wasn't his first rodeo. It was his second.
"Arthur" flashback music plays
THE FIRST RODEO.
INTERIOR. THE UNITED STATES EMBASSY, BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC. -AFTERNOON
ARDILLA FEROZ and BROTHER are sitting in a comfy office on the upper floor of the embassy. There is a blue carpet and a comfortable fabric armchair facing them. CIA LADY (45, thin, dirty brown hair, very serious) and EMBASSY CRONY (late thirties, short, brown curly hair, kind, with stylish glasses) are sitting with them.
Remember, the chargé d'affaires is #1 around here, so show him that respect, and address him as sir.
Respect. Sir. Okay.
CHARGÉ bursts through the door. He is in his mid-forties, with the build of a paunchy rugby player, dark hair, and is possibly of Latino or Polynesian descent. He sits down. He is very angry.
So. What the f@!*.
ARDILLA has had reservations about this meeting. Those reservations have now been canceled. Sucks to suck, ARDILLA.
What are you doing here?
We’re tourists… Sir.
They're good waterfalls, Brent
Tourists, ha! So you just waltz in to the Central African Republic on some kind of trip to brag about to your buddies back home, huh? Fancy yourselves adventurers, or something?
You know what kind of place this is? Just today, over KM 5 (a Rough Part of Town), we had a drone flying around. The military called me and asked if it was ours, it wasn’t. But we have no idea whose it even is. This places is so tense it is on the verge of exploding at any time. EMBASSY CRONY, did you explain to them the situation?
EMBASSY CRONY nods and murmurs assent. He has explained in excruciating detail to ARDILLA and BROTHER hours previously the precarious keg of rabid, coked-up ferrets that is Bangui, which includes riots escalating out of things as simple as a car accident and the fascinating possibility of theoretically being kidnapped and taken to the country of Chad where he could be sold to the highest bidder and executed. ARDILLA doesn't discount the possibility, but judging by the tepid response he's received from dating apps in the last year doubts the highest bid would be more than a moldy sock. Oh, but wait. We're in the embassy, now. Ego-bruising can wait until later.
Oh, never mind, that also happens now.
Yes, I’ve told them.
(becoming increasingly agitated)
We're in the middle of some very delicate diplomatic negotiations currently and in the middle of the night we hear about you chumps calling from a police station somewhere because you've been detained. We’ve never heard of you before. We don’t know who you are, where you are. Where you might be. We call all kinds of contacts in the police, the military, trying to figure out if you’re safe, how to keep you safe. The military doesn’t know you’re here either, until now. All kinds of people get called. High-level police officials. The presidential cabinet.
ARDILLA is confused, because it seems the highest levels of national government have been notified of his visit. He is not sure what to make of this information, but doesn’t need to worry what he should think about it for long, because that part has conveniently already been thought for him.
And for what? Some kind of trip to prove how tough you are to impress your buddies back home?
What would happen if something happened to you here? You could really muck up the situation. It's more fragile than it appears. This government is really only three years old, and it needs all the stability it can get.
But that's not really what worries me. I've got kids of my own, they're almost grown. As a parent—as a father—I don't want to call your parents and tell them something's happened to you. Your mother—what would she say if something happened to you? What would she think?
ARDILLA actually knows what his mom would think: what he's doing is pretty stupid, and if he died somehow she would be terribly disappointed, but not terribly surprised. He looks around. EMBASSY CRONY and CIA LADY aren't really contributing to the situation here, just nodding mimetically to reinforce what CHARGÉ is saying, which includes disparaging the remainder of their travel plans, advising them against visiting volatile Cameroon, making sure they know they're inconsiderate imbecilic idiots... ad nauseum.
So what are you going to do now?
ARDILLA and BROTHER, in tired unison:
We're gonna leave here, go to the travel agency, book the first flight out of here, stay in the $300 a night hotel you recommended, and leave in the morning.
THE LEDGER HOTEL, INT. (nighttime)
ARDILLA and BROTHER are in the lobby of the $300 a night hotel whose WiFi they are lifting where they meet ITALIAN FREELANCE JOURNALIST, who, upon being apprised of the day’s deets regards everything the Embassy said as exaggerated and overly cautious.
ARDILLA and BROTHER speak in person with BYU PROFESSOR [REDACTED], who teaches history and counterterrorism classes by fall and winter semesters, and works as a military and counterterrorism consultant in the summers. As one does. He has identified our hapless protagonists by their pictures in the embassy, and has now spotted them floundering In The Wild/Hotel Lobby.
It's really quite unusual to find someone from BYU so far from home.
Not that unlikely.
I'm pretty sure it is.
Actually, this blows Ardilla's mind.
It is, and there aren't any other professors on campus who do what I do, much less come here. And I'd suggest—highly, highly suggest—not getting yourself killed. Your deaths could set off a chain of events that might set this country's progress back, oh, fifteen years. Do the responsible thing. And for your own sake—keep yourself safe. Take the plane.
They believe BYU PROFESSOR, and agree their untimely demise would be altogether inconvenient. Who would take care of their parrot? Will they take the plane?
HOTEL LEVYS, INT.
It is nighttime. They are not on the plane. Instead,
ARDILLA and BROTHER speak in the back room of a hotel with a creepy Lebanese-African man who looks remarkably like Bowler Hat Guy from Disney's animated film 'Meet the Robinsons.'
So you're saying that many parts of the country are not safe—but that this road is safe, and after we go get permits from the various government officials on a weekend and pay them accordingly we can rent your truck and driver for hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
The lights and air conditioning abruptly choke off as the power goes down somewhere in the city. Through the darkness, the glow of the cigarette illuminates the cloud of tobacco smoke drifting from Bowler Hat Guy.
BOWLER HAT GUY:
Don’t forget the permits from the government contacts. You’ll need to meet them on a weekend and pay them
A generator kicks on somewhere in the hotel, and the fluorescent lights glow green briefly as the air conditioner shudders to life.
BOWLER HAT GUY
Absolutely. You will have no problems. The road is safe.
So if it's safe, couldn't we just go by... ourselves?
BOWLER HAT GUY (leering menacingly)
Two whites on their own in the Central African Republic?
You'd never be seen again!
He actually cackles.
EXTERIOR MONTAGE: ROAD TO BAYANGA, MORNING
A beautiful day in the neighborhood near the Hotel Levys (photo taken two days prior)
ARDILLA and BROTHER ride to the edge of the city on a motorcycle.
There, they catch a ride with a public lorry. It is overcrowded and uncomfortable. When it rains, a green tarpaulin is pulled over the whole truck, making it simple to avoid unwanted attention at control points, where they put their heads in their laps, try to hide their pallid hides, and pretend to be asleep.
The lorry is bumpy. Frozen fish tumble from a cooler and cascade onto ARDILLA, who is coping by fantasizing vividly about the rice pudding recipe from Board Question 65900. In a period of several hours he devises kinds of rice pudding heretofore only dreamt of. Rosewater apple. Pumpkin saffron. Chocolate chip with cherry chicken chunks. 78 new varieties in all. Quite simple, really. Ardilla knows they would obviously work, because once he even ate some rice pudding.
The lorry is sliding off the road. Another truck tries to pull it from the mud at the edge. This truck also slides off the road into slick mud.
A nineteen year-old man is asking ARDILLA and BROTHER (who long ago befriended the other passengers) if they know how to use a gun. They... don't carry a gun? How will they protect their families? He has two kids, already, and to make sure they are always—
CAMOUFLAGED MILITANTS on motorbikes with machine guns appear, riding along the road towards ARDILLA, who is standing in front of the trucks staring at the mess, and then—
—totally ignoring them?
ARDILLA frowns as they pass him without a second glance, relieved, but also disappointed, somehow. So much for being worth more than a moldy sock. Good thing he packed several of his own.
BROTHER and ARDILLA are shown negotiating passage with a diamond buyer, passing by with his truck at midnight. He doesn't really want to take them but is okay with it. ARDILLA waves at the people stranded in the trucks, who smile and wave back. It's as if he and his brother caught a ride with a speedboat going by the sinking Titanic and left everyone else to figure it out. As they drive away, he remembers guiltily one of the stranded men was just trying to get to the next town to see his dying father. It might take them two days. ARDILLA, in the speeding four-wheel drive truck, will reach it in hours.
BROTHER and ARDILLA hide as much as they can at checkpoints, feigning sleep to try and get through with less hassle, instead of getting out, registering passports, resisting bribe attempts, and wasting hours.
DIAMOND BUYER can be heard negotiating on their (and his) behalf. He, too, just wants to move.
DIAMOND BUYER to CHECKPOINT BLOKE, placatingly:
It's late, can't you see they're exhauste? They're not doing anything...
They are allowed to pass.
The road is rough. They pass into a rainforest area again and the car lurches wildly around. ARDILLA and BROTHER are so tired they cannot stay awake, even as their heads bounce and rattle against the seats and windows. The truck often confronts enormous, deep pools of water across many feet of the road. The driver accelerates and plunges into these deepening mudholes, water surging over the hood of the vehicle, until the momentum of the car and some small amount of friction allow it to escape.
ARDILLA wants to film this. He is too tired, but at least he'll always remember the way the water looked on the road when—his head bounces off the window, and he thinks about filming no more.
ARDILLA and BROTHER are shown walking around a diamond mining town with huge jewel shops, and here their driver bids them farewell. They drink sweet manioc porridge with beignet donuts purchased from a man in the town, walk past the burned-out remains of a mosque destroyed in ethnic violence.
The duo is now perched precariously on the back of a motorcycle, backpack holding onto ARDILLA who is holding onto BROTHER who is holding on to the driver who is balancing the last backpack on his motorcycle handlebars, and this backpack is holding on to nothing at all, because it is lazy. The teetering vehicle of people and possessions at last arrives in the town of BAYANGA.
ARDILLA and SHAWN are shown watching gorillas in the national park, which they've reached at last.
Now they are in one of the world's largest jungle elephant clearings. They count 54 elephants from their tower on the edge of the clay lick at one point.
They camp on the platform in the night and listen to the sounds of countless elephants foraging, snuffling, and moaning around and below them. It is an experience like no other.
ARDILLA considers the immense hassle in getting here the following afternoon, as he watches elephants play peacefully in the water left by an afternoon rainstorm.
ARTHUR-STYLE FIRST RODEO FLASHBACK ENDS
The American embassy’s phone call drones on.
“…So while the rebels would probably ignore you, there’s also criminal bad actors around who commit crimes and pretend they were affiliated with them, you know?”
“Tchinda and his guys, they’re just looking out for you, they just want you to be safe. We’ve got a great relationship going with these guys here in Cameroon and I’d highly suggest just doing as they say, yeah? They don’t want to you to get hurt.”
I don’t recall clearly if they spoke to Tchinda then, or if he just asked us what they said. But they’d backed each other up, and for us, there was one destination: the airport, in Douala. That a two-hour flight cost thousands of dollars was no issue for them: the air was clearly the way to go.
We protested their choice ineffectually, but wait. Brother had another idea.
“Okay, look. We know you want us to be safe, and the road is not safe.”
“The road is not safe!”
“Yes, yes, we get that. So we won’t—can’t—go that way. But could we visit the monkey sanctuary in Limbe before we go? We hear it’s really nice. Would that be okay for us to visit?”
The gray paramilitary vehicle surged seaward through the countryside along the narrow, well-maintained roads well over the suggested 60 kph speed limit. Here, the city had given way to verdant fields of tea, the manicured yellow-green rows enrobing the volcanic slopes of Mt. Cameroon above. We arrived in Limbe quickly, but we passed by the sanctuary altogether.
“Hey! Weren’t you going to leave us at—”
“You need to register.”
After hand-inscribing the details of our passports at the local paramilitary office, we convinced them we could walk to Monkeytown, two blocks distant, unaided. As soon as we were out of sight, we turned a corner and went the other way—we’d already been to the sanctuary—down to the port, where we spoke to a man in charge if there were flying boats (speedboats) to Nigeria. He replied that there wouldn’t be one for a couple of days, when his friend had a boat? We thanked him and left, hoping there might be transport further up the coast.
Child elsewhere in Cameroon, near Lobeke NP
An hour of shared taxi through a gentle rainstorm to the coast, we reached a paramilitary checkpoint and passed without incident. Arriving in the town of Idenau, we were instantly rushed by a number of people who began trying to sell us their motorboat passage for 14,000 francs (USD 30), each claiming to be the only people authorized to run a boat to Nigeria. Overwhelmed by their numbers—hadn’t we just been told there wouldn’t be a boat for days?—and wary of getting scammed, we walked away from the area. When a guy followed us telling us he wasn't trying to cheat us, I got angry and yelled at him. He lingered fretting for a moment, shrugged, and walked away.
Taking shelter from the rain at a small roadside booth made of planks and some corrugated stuff, we sat to calm down and decide our next move. That move was made for us when a soldier at the checkpoint we’d already cleared noticed us sitting nearby.
"You must register your passport."
Fifteen minutes later, phone crammed sweatily against his face, the head office crony lights up with malevolent glee. He knows we’ve left out information about who we are. He’s talking to… Tchinda? Tchinda’s office? I don’t know, but one thing seems quite apparent: We’re screwed.
“You,” he gloats, “aren’t permitted to go this way. You must return to Douala. You must fly to Nigeria.”
Brother, heretofore remarkably composed, finally breaks down in racking sobs.
“Why. Why won’t you people let us go? We’re not causing you any problems here. There’s no rebels in this area, and you know that. Besides, we don’t want to stay here, and we don’t have money for a plane ticket. All we want to do is get on a boat… and go.”
The following minutes of discussion yield, incredibly, a compromise. We will be allowed to take an early boat tomorrow to Nigeria. We can’t stay in the town—where would we possibly be safe, mundeles like us?—so we’re led to our third military truck of the day, unarmored this time.
Monkeytown, Cameroon. We’ve been dropped off at what is, for Cameroon, a small, posh place—showers, a fan, even a lobby, where I am slumped in exhaustion at the bar, ordering three strawberry sodas, one for myself, two to share with the staff. “Today is my birthday. Will you drink with me?” It’s a small moment, and a way to take the edge off the day. I offer them another, but the last soda I will drink alone.
Early the next morning, we walked through the falling rain three blocks to where cars would apparently be departing for the town of Idenau. Few things in Cameroon are simple, though, so we started walking past a barricaded police station to arrive, thought better of it, retreated, were noticed by a policeman, yelled at from afar, explained we were trying to get to the car station, are permitted to pass, and then breathe easier, slowly.
The station was six or seven men waiting underneath a long set of tin-roofed stalls. "Are you all going to the coast?" we asked. Yes, but they were just drivers. Yes, sometimes there were many people at this time, no, no one else had showed up, we were the first today, could we not see it was raining? We didn't have much option other than to put our bags in the back of a car and wait in the chilly pre-dawn light.
After a few minutes, a woman showed up with various coolers full of piping-hot food to serve. Rice, cassava fufu, boiled plantains for starches, a variety of stewed vegetables and meat sauces to be served alongside it. I picked fufu, a spicy vegetable stew made of some green vegetable and a red spicy sauce besides that. She brought me some water to wash my hands, and a glass of water to drink. Unexpected, and luxurious.
Fufu hadn't been particularly common on this voyage, but I'd watched enough people eat it to know more or less what I was doing: tear off a piece of the gummy, fist-sized starch balls, shape it a little and use it like a spoon to scoop up the sauce you'd chosen, in my case a stewed leaf vegetable and a serving of chicken cooked in palm oil and chilies. Both were very spicy. The drivers sitting nearby noticed me eating with my hands and murmured to each other appreciatively. When you're the consistently the weirdest looking person in town, you shouldn't be surprised when you're noticed. The meal was excellent, one of the best I'd had in a long time. I'd never shirked from trying food in the region—bushmeat excepted—but I was happy to find myself unreservedly enjoying it.
After I finished, I noticed a man eating an orange, pasty looking fruit with shiny, brown seeds like unshelled macadamia nuts. I asked him where he'd gotten it. He gestured at the botanical garden across the street, and offered me a chunk. Eating it, I was delighted to discover it seemed to be a sort of lucuma, a Peruvian fruit that tastes something like butterscotch sweet potato with the texture of hard-boiled egg yolk. I'd mistakenly thought I'd seen it in the Central African Republic weeks earlier (I threw that oozing fruit at a man who’d succeeded in pickpocketing my brother, who stole his phone back), but this, across from the garden, was the real deal. Eating an uncommon fruit from another distant location felt like I'd unlocked and completed some kind of secret quest. Because for me, I had.
At once, several people arrived and our shared taxi was filled. Quickly, unceremoniously, we sped off northwesterly in the dawn light.
We reached a police checkpoint, where each passenger approached, documents in hand, and stated their destination. "Nigeria, " we said, like we'd said the day before.
The policeman inspected our passports "Two thousand francs each," he smirked, place on the grimy wooden table inside his booth.
"No," we state in unison, casually snatching the passports up in the same moment and walking past the booth towards our waiting car.
The policeman exploded, enraged. "What are you doing?" he bellowed, "Are you sick in the head? EVERY person going to Nigeria must pay the tax!" Brandishing his automatic rifle with his left hand, he seized my brother's arm with his right, towing him backwards in an attempt to swing him into his roadside booth. Brother Feroz sidestepped deftly, the force of the policeman's pull instead slamming him against the doorframe, where he stood stolidly.
"We do not pay," my brother said again, seething.
"It is the TAX! You must pay!"
"Oh yeah?" snarled brother, "do you wish us to call Commander Tchinda and tell him you are trying to extort us? We have his number!" We did, of course, have his number, but the top paramilitary commander in the region whose orders we'd expressly ignored—again—was absolutely the last person we wanted alerted. Invoking his name to intimidate a low-level lackey of another organization, though? If he were reasonable, it might work.
Alas, angry people in danger of losing a bribe rarely are, so he continued to bluster and rage, aging semiautomatic cradled tightly in his left arm, tendons in his hand bulging as they clenched the gun stock until another voice entered the conversation: that of the policeman working the booth on the opposite side of the street.
"Hey," groaned the officer tiredly, "you are being foolish. They were here yesterday. They know they do not pay."
Grumbling, the policeman shoved us away as he returned to his lair, cursing, sulking.
Triumphantly, we climbed inside the car and set off. "Why did you tell them you were going to Nigeria?!?" chastised the driver. "Never tell them where you are going. Just say you are going to the town on the border."
"Oh," we said. Good to know.
The fiberglass speedboat puttered out of the harbor past the handmade fishing ships, out into the sea. I shifted on the hard bench, anticipating my freedom.
Abruptly, the boat changed course and returned to the harbor.
“Too heavy,” the captain said. “Someone will need to get off.” No one moved. A massive rice-bag gunny sack of what appeared to be used flip-flops was eventually tossed off, and, motivations unknown, one passenger got back onto the shore.
After a few minutes, the boat once again chugged seaward, further this time. The salty breeze was freedom in our lungs, the scent of—
The boat stopped, and began to return to port. Something was… wrong with the engine?
We’d given that paramilitary checkpoint the slip earlier in the day—that is, we’d gone through pretending everything was normal, which meant “definitely not going to any other country using a speedboat, and certainly not employing the services of that dude we’d rudely blown off the day before.” Fat lot of good it would do us now if they changed their minds and found us in the harbor again, which we’d now reached, along with a bevy of other speedboats preparing to leave.
Fortunately, it appeared that wouldn’t be a concern, because we’d picked up the passenger who had left, and some more stuff—heavy boat weight be damned—and we were going, at last, to flipping Nigeria. The craft buzzed out of the harbor, farther now than we’d ever been into this specific portion of the ocean, how beautiful it really was, and small the harbored boats on the coast were the size of beetles and REVERSE UNO CARD FROM SPACE the boat returned, again, back to shore.
One of the other passengers, unfazed, leaned over and chatted with us. Upon learning our nationality, he confessed conspiratorially that he, one day, wanted to go to America.
“Me too, man,” I mumbled bitterly. “Me too.”
Logic could no longer be attached to any movement of the boat, and so, twenty minutes later, my brother and I glared with extreme suspicion and increasing glee at the distancing shore, now five minutes behind us, now ten. We whipped past timbered fishing boats chugging outward, still we went on outwards. Mt. Cameroon, the highest in West and Central Africa, stretched into the clouds, its volcanic reaches fading into mist and memory.
The boat set a course northward, the coast rarely further than a mile or two. Here and there, fishing villages were cut into the thick spiny palm groves that grew profusely wherever fresh and saltwater mingled.
Ahead, somber clouds swirled in a darkening eye. Lachrymose sheets of rain fell onto the water for a still moment, and then they were upon us.
The captain pulled on the outboard motor, angling the craft as best he could over the Atlantic rollers, but now and again the boat crashed and yawed against the warm waters, the patched fiberglass pitching and shuddering. We’d been in the rainstorm for maybe an hour or two, but the chill of the wind against our drenched-kitten bodies chilled us, especially those who’d only had t-shirts and lifejackets for the journey. We’d entered an enormous bay where the Cross River emptied into the ocean, our destination somewhere on the other side, invisible in the rain.
Appearing in the gloom, a large steel platform loomed from the sea, a room abutted by two spiraling towers. Nigerian Coast Guard, probably. Among these coastal groves where oil was plentiful and government control was weaker, pirates were known to roam.
Piracy in the region is an ongoing problem, but at the time had improved, perhaps in part to structures like the guard post I could see, towers and a square structure perched above the waves. Cool. I pulled out my camera to take a picture.
“What are you doing?” hissed the man to my right, “They are watching us!” He shook his head and adjusted the puffed-up inner tube he wore around his waist. Feeling foolish, I stowed the camera, wondering if they’d seen from the gloom.
A few minutes on, the boat slowed to a halt. The captain grimaced as he fiddled with the engine, refueling it and trying to get his bearings. Coaxing the engine back to life, we puttered hesitantly through the cold rain, water splashing into water upon water, anywhere we looked.
There! A small fishing boat toiled off the port side, rain drizzling down the crews’ dark, shirtless backs as they hauled nets over the side, lean muscles taut and coiling from the strain.
The captain called out a question to them in Igbo, they affably pointed into the gloom, and we were off once more, angling significantly to the right.
Wherever we were going, we weren’t there yet, and so after a few minutes I huddled into my jacket, trying to warm up, watching the rainwater slosh around the bottom of the boat. Our boat slowed, and I looked at my benchmate. His arms were raised above his head. I spun to look at Brother, whose hands were raised. Everyone’s hands were raised, looking at something in front of the boat, I noticed as I raised mine too.
Anchored ahead was a gray military gunboat: three men in dark ponchos poised on its deck—one behind a heavy machine gun draped in a black tarp—all inspecting us carefully. The green-white-green of the Nigerian flag adorned the side of the boat.
“You can put your hands down,” they said, and asked our captain about the details of the day’s trip. “You look cold,” he said, regarding the shivering passengers. A skinny ten-year old, especially, chattered beneath his lifejacket. “Maybe you should give him your jacket,” said Brother, irritated. “Then I wouldn’t have a jacket,” said the guard, matter-of-factly. After proceeding to collect a fee from everyone in the boat except my brother and I, the gunboat captain, finally, gestured us onward to the waiting shore, the country marking the end of our Central African journeys.
“Welcome to Nigeria.”
Stats Break and Discussion:
Number of countries visited in These Here Travels: 49
Number of countries in which I logged a Board answer: 47, though I was proofreading alumni responses in what would make 48.
Number of countries visited with limited recognition: Yo, people don’t agree. But I’d consider these to be five, and I’d consider them to be Their Own Thing: Abkhazia, Transnistria, Republic of Artsakh (aka Nagorno-Karabagh), and Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.
Number of Countries I’ve visited overall: 59
Doses of anti-diarrheal medication used in 12-week Central Africa trip: 132, most of these used in a particularly fluid five-day period
The most beautiful thing about this Sao Tome beach is that I found a hotel with a fully-functional toilet behind it... juuuuust in time.
Things you could have gone your whole life happily without knowing: that
Modes of travel used: Plane, train, car, subway, taxi, minibus, horse carriage, freight truck, speedboat, dugout canoe, motorcycle, rope, bus, freight boat, paramilitary trucks, foot
Canoe on the river separating the Central African Republic from Cameroon
Something I’m not proud of?
The 21350 hours it took me to write all this, and the countless hours at home and abroad anxiously staring at the ceiling and scrolling through social media
Something I’m proud of?
The 25,249 words I eventually churned out, which is the length of several Junie B. Jones novels, and slightly longer than the 21,170 of Louis Sachar’s literary masterpiece, Sideways Stories from Wayside School
Also proud of getting a Nigerian visa outside of the U.S. As a matter of policy they don’t do it, but I wasn’t able to procure one before leaving (#procrastination) and we tried in both Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville before finally finding someone willing to issue one in the Central African Republic. This epic multi-nation sidequest yielded some gnarly moments.
Gas Stop, Congo
Favorite trash food:
Bulgaria serves their fifty-cent slabs of street pizza alongside bulk condiment dispensers to properly drench the greasy pie slices: ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, garlic aioli reminiscent of ranch. At long last—my people.
Fermented shark in Iceland. Atrocious. Like rotting fish, because they actually do rot it underground for a long time to render the ammonia-laden flesh edible. And since it comes from a super-old animal that probably shouldn’t be eaten, I think I may have picked up a malevolent marine curse. You know, like drinking unicorn blood, if unicorn blood smelled like stale urine and anchovies. It would explain a lot.
Favorite overall cuisine?
Turkey, easy. I mean Turkey's cuisine, not the dry, festive bird. Pretty much anything Turkish is probably made with blended fairies. Republic of Georgia also has delicious food. Also, Egyptian mango juice is fresh, flavorful and fifty cents a glass. Sweet.
"You know what else everbody likes? Parfaits!" -donkey
Sao Tome Vendor
Scariest single moment?
Just one? Well, probably when my brother and I had hopped out of a bad situation in the CAR. My bro had just thwarted a pickpocketing attempt and the vibe in the crowd had suddenly become hostile. An older security guard told us we should leave immediately, and in full agreement we piled onto the back of a motorcycle and told the driver to take us out. As we accelerated from a stop, out of my peripheral vision I saw a guy running up fast behind us on my right and I reflexively backhanded him across the chest, hard. He stumbled to a stop, stunned, and the onlookers simply laughed, and I was filled with hatred.
In the following weeks I thought of that moment, wondering if he meant to tear my backpack away, or pull me down to the ground. I found myself wishing I’d hurt him more, and in this moment of self-examination I didn’t care for what I saw.
Worst countries I’ve personally visited?
For sheer lawless anarchy and people constantly trying to scam and take advantage of me (difficult times = desperate people) CAR takes the cake and pressures me into paying for it.
For paranoid, corrupt dictatorships with altogether too much incompetent government control (stop accusing us of being spies, fools) it’s Equatorial Guinea.
It's funny because this "best and only president" has continuously been in power since 1979
For places actively destroying a minority group’s language, heritage, and considerable architecture—Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds, which at least isn’t as pronounced as their genocide of the Armenians a century ago, which they categorically deny. Might as well wreck their architecture too, since there wasn’t anything in the first place, amirite? **smash**
To be fair, they're clearing the weeds and haven't wrecked what's left of this Armenian church in Diyarbakir... yet
For great ambiance, Iraqi Kurdistan had incredible food, felt remarkably safe, and people love Americans, so it’s sort of like being a rock star, if being a rock star means people are excited to talk to you in surprisingly good English and are always giving you free treats.
Perhaps even more so I enjoyed Albania for its friendly people, historical architecture, inexpensive, delicious food and remarkable alpine beauty.
Bolivia is great for adventure tourism (shoutout to Toro Toro NP, with sandstone slot canyons, limestone caves and dinosaur statues in public plazas) and vibrantly evident indigenous cultures that are the norm, rather than the persecuted exception. It’s also the easiest place in the world to see jaguars in Kaa-Iya National Park, (though we made the mistake of going to the altogether sucky Salar de Uyuni instead, where I also got food poisoning. Not that I’m salty about it).
Best tropical fruit? Colombia’s Andean-tropical interface grows mangosteens, lulo, passionfruit and other cool things. Best overall fruit is an easy win to Armenia’s abundant, cheap and delicious apricots, whose color is exhibited on their nation’s flag.
For wildlife-viewing opportunities, it’s a toss-up between Gabon’s mandrills, Cameroon’s gorillas, and the Central African Republic.
Gorilla prints in Lobeke NP
Slimy, Yet Satisfying - Lobeke NP
For ingenuity in transportation--the reigning world champion, second-to-last in the UN's Human Development Index (moving on up, guys!): Central African Republic.
You might think it confusing that such a terrible place could be so fascinating, but muddle no more, and BEHOLD:
Nature is 'aight, but this is ART.
That charcoal for cooking stoves ain't gonna drive itself.
Mario Kart Double Dash IRL
Wood you be mine? (There's also a man sitting on the windshield).
For abundant, free bathrooms and trustworthy water: ‘Murica the Brave.
Something you’d like readers to know?
You don’t need to go far from home to have an adventure. Why, just today fresh out of the airport from Mexico, I decided to go grab some chewy Turkish ice cream, took a shortcut through a vast abandoned lot off the Vegas strip and next thing I know I’m running to elude a gangster hobo who’s chasing me so he can I’m Not Sticking Around To Find Out. Luckily for me, someone skipped leg day and I’m powered by the infinite energy of cowardice.
Just minding my own business, taking a picture of a pristine Nevada waterway moments before the sudden inspiration to run
See? Every day—no matter how dull it seemed when you woke up on the airport floor—has the potential to kill you! Just that alone is enough to get me out the front door. "Get a little taste of the glory! See what it taste like!"*
*2/10 would not recommend taste of the glory. 7/10 would recommend the Turkish ice cream at Marash.
Mexico: Caves a la cartel
Time: Freakin’ Last Week
Now: with more rushed stream-of-consciousness style writing! This needs to post.
I’m currently in Mexico and I’d just finished this answer up, I really had, but then I made a mistake and done went outside for the day, forgetting We Just Can’t Have Nice Things, see I was having myself a fine old time with my mates rappelling into and mapping unexplored caves in rural Michoacan, Mexico—as one does—when we asked a friend in the town to lead us to a cave we’d been unable to find.
We park and leave one team member to watch the gear and ropes we’ve stashed in the back of our truck, and four of us—Nico (our friend and guide for the day), Emanuel (our local Mexican caver), Pascal (our trip leader) and I set out. We stretch-hop through a barbed wire fence and we’re moseying through the brush along cow paths. I’m excited to see where this particular cave goes, and hoping it doesn’t have toxic air like the last one (lots of decaying plant material in sinkholes = CO2 levels as much as twenty-four times the normal atmospheric amount, a Problem).
As we get into the trees, we see a discarded water bottle, and litter is for quitters.
“People know this place,” remarks Nico, who looks up to where the cave entrance and sees something he doesn’t recognize, something blue.
And sitting on top of it—
“Oye, ñaño! Ñaño!” Cousin, a local slang term used to greet most everyone, in a town this small most everyone is your cousin.
“Sicarios,” remarks Nico quietly, and calls out again, because now whoever the cousin is knows we’re here.
Finally, from the rocks: “Who is it?”
‘We’re just some people.”
“…Nico, from the town. We’re here to explore some caves.”
“You’re doing what?!?”
“Here to see some caves with the viejito.”
Another wait, now, perhaps some distant discussion.
“Come on up. Come! No pasa nada. How many are you?”
“Three. No, four. Four!”
Nico stashes something in a tree. I think it’s his phone—keeping it from being stolen?—so I put mine by a tree too, not finding out until later that what was stashed was a pistol.
We go up, and as we do Emanuel and Carlos raise their shirts, displaying their bare waists. They raise their hands, momentarily, so I do too, because it’s an important life skill.
The lead-up to the cave is a pile of rocks against a cliff, the cave entrance yawning behind them. A group of men is waiting for us. Everyone is in their twenties and wearing black t-shirts, but a variety of pants. Some have tattoos. They look flustered, but are doing their best to act like people come and surprise them in their secret hideout all the time.
“Help the viejito, help him,” they tell me, as they see gray-haired Pascal clambering his way up to the entrance, but I don’t, because Pascal is capable in this, of climbing up rocks, of climbing up cliffs, and even in the stress of the moment I don’t want to be patronizing and he factually doesn’t need help.
There’s a makeshift sleeping area here with cardboard wedged in to make a bed, and I step across it to get closer to the cave entrance. I look at it and wonder if they were same the people who tagged it with old blue spray paint. The mixture of broken rocks—some quite large—is a passable fortification, there are ammunition clips and tactical jackets smattered on top of rocks and next to them. There’s six, maybe seven people, we greet and exchange names. I’ve got my caving helmet on. We’re here to see the cave, right? With all these people here it’s really going to be hard to explore it tomorrow, I think. I turn on my light, but don’t go into the cave yet. I hear something inside that I momentarily recognize as someone taking a leak. The slightly lighter leaker lurches out drunkenly, wearing a blue and maroon rugby-style polo. “Go inside, go inside,” the first man says, trying to sound casual but instead sounds stressed, and no one else moves.
Pascal, to his credit is thinking clearly, and he looks at Nico. “I don’t think this is the right cave. We were here last year. He looks at me. “Remember from the caving report I showed you?” I nod and agree. “It’s maybe 30m long by 20m across, no decoration, dirt floor.” A few of the guys, not just the one who talked to us—thin, with a tattoo, nods at this correct description of it.
Pascal speaks to Nico again. “This isn’t the one we’re looking for, we want the one with decoration, remember?”
“Oh, oh yeah, with all the water in the bottom, wavers Nico, “my mistake, I thought you meant this one.”
“No, we’ve already seen this one, we don’t need to see it again.”
We explain to the men peppered around us that we meant to go to that other cave—we explain which one, they act as if they know what we’re talking about, and maybe they do—and that someone is waiting for us back at the truck with our gear. Just another member of our team! A young guy, calming their alarm. We thank them for their kindness and as we leave, they say it was no problem, they’re not here to hurt anyone, no worries!
But we didn’t see anything. One holds his finger to his lips for emphasis, and I make the gesture back. “Just a boring old cave here,” I note.
I slide-and-fist-bump with a couple dudes and we leave, not looking back. We’ve left from the forest into more of a hillside clearing when they call after us, telling us to come back, there’s no problem, they just want us to talk to someone. Nico heads back and talks to someone on what might be a radio, and Emanuel, our other friend from the town who’d accompanied us—heretofore almost silent—is now talking with someone who has appeared from… somewhere.
Curious, lying to myself that maybe I’ll be able to “help,” I wander back to the edge of the forest and the conversation to see a new guy with a modified M16 rifle, wearing a tactical vest stacked with, like, eight clips of ammo. The first guy we met has procured what might be an AK-47 or a Kalashnikov—I really have to learn my firearms, vacations would be so much more educational—and the newcomer is very poised, professional. I offer to show him cave pictures and he declines, repeatedly saying there’s no problem here, no grudge, we’re just talking. Pascal joins us, curious as well. We talk a little longer—probably me walking back to investigate wasn’t strategically wise—but then Nico, who has wasted no time in walking out of the forest, gets our attention and is like “let’s go, fools,” so we walk along the hillside while Emanuel stays behind and I am worried about him, did we just get him into something bad, and so I ask Nico, who calls out to him and he’s like “I’m fine, guey,” and anyways we skedaddle on out of there. As it turns out, the new guy had heard us walking around as we approached the cave and had been keeping tabs on us from across the gulch when he heard us approaching, and he can hear us leaving, now, straight on out of there, and immediately back to the truck, and we bounced, then bounced along the road in a crumbling truck to the actual cave, which was nowhere near where we’d been, in fact it was miles away.
Later that evening, we asked our friend about the identity of the men, and he said simply they were fugitives from the government. Not cartel members, exactly but linked? Possibly; maybe to the Jalisco-based group interested in wresting regional control from the dominant Michoacan groups. We didn’t know, and we weren’t about to go back and ask.
We followed a Catholic posada through the cobblestone streets that night, eating adobada tacos, drinking sweet cinnamon ponche to stave off the winter chill.
Somewhere, in the hills above, a gunman shivered and turned in his sleep.
Where Do We Go From Here—at attempt at ye olde wrappe-uppe
Time: Right after Mexico and right before the Las Vegas hobo incident
Soundtrack: 20syl – “Ongoing Thing (feat. Oddisee)”–when I’m up—and Odezsa’s “How Did I Get Here,” when I’m feeling down
“Don’t give it to me easy, I like a little challenge
Winning feels better when you take a little damage”
--“Ongoing Thing,” 20syl
I’ve got some time in the next few months to travel, but I haven’t the vaguest idea where I’ll end up, when, or with whom. I was going to enact my long-held screw-everything backup plan and move to Iran/Tajikistan or something for a bit and become conversational in Farsi, Tajik or Dari, but it’s always been hard for me to make my own plans when I think—or hope, perhaps—I might be important in someone else’s. I’ll set everything aside, the plans, ambitions, in the off-chance I might feel validated or accepted. I don’t like this about myself, this need, desire, hope I’m more than a fleeting cameo in someone else’s personal film.
Travel is one of those things that is supposed to make you happy, at least, that’s the way people try to sell it to you. But as much as I’d like to glaze this all with some honey essential-oiled panacea pretending I’ve Made It or whatever, I don’t think that travel makes me happy. It has some nice moments, and it’s often enthralling, engrossing and interesting, but “happiness” is a slippery (and meaningless) word, for no matter how real and how immersive it feels to you, one day you must return home to your personal Shire only to realize your problems are still there waiting for you, if you’d ever set them aside.
I don’t think travel has made me a better person, either, but certainly it’s exaggerated some of my characteristics—the adventurousness, the grit, the dogged come-what-may eagerness, yes, but also the neuroses, the anxieties, the fears, the constant self-loathing, the sneaking realization that no matter where I go, what I do, I cannot escape myself.
Climbing a steep volcanic ridge on the island nation of Sao Tome
Is this why I end up in the places I do? Is this all some bizarre, protracted and costly form of performative self-sabotage? Do I do this just so I can tell people about it? If so, that’s unfortunate, because in general people aren’t interested—they simply can’t relate, nor do they care to. After all, they’ve got their own problems.
Travel for me is often grinding, unpleasant, and things often go wrong, but let’s get real here. that’s where it gets interesting—and funny. Does it suck that I lost the bag containing all my caving and camera gear four hours into my Mexico trip because I grabbed the wrong bag off the bus? Yes, quite so—this was in no figurative sense a financial loss equivalent to the street value of an adult male capybara—but my scramble in the hours before the flight to replace the curated technical adventure gear I’d loved and trusted implicitly? Hilarious.
Sometimes when I do things I feel like I’m watching someone else do them, someone who’s a little bit crazy, and way too nosy for their own good. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that I’m also here for a good dose of schadenfreude, and there’s a certain twisted glee when things spiral wildly out of control. Eventually the sensation passes, and guess who has to inhabit the frustration, loneliness and remorse, and live with the runaway consequences of my actions? Wot wot?! Pish posh! Affrontery!
And yet. A curious thing about the difficulties, the problems, the close calls is after a while you begin to get a taste for them. It shouldn’t go on. It can’t go on.
But the thrill.
I overheard myself say something horrifying to a relative recently, and it encapsulates my travels, me, altogether and succinctly:
“Hey, let’s not complicate things. I’ll complicate them myself.”
--Ardilla Feroz, who started this question in Baku, Azerbaijan, and who pretty much finished it in Guadalajara, Mexico
P.S. Dear Board readers: if you read this, or read some part of it and liked it, please email me and tell me, because let's be real, I crave validation and feedback. You could also ask a question, if you wanted--the editors have threatened to loot my acorn stash ( a real thing) if I don't answer in a timely fashion--but if you don't believe me, I understand.
P.P.S. Storykeeper, original question-asker: congratulations, you’ve won a Free World Meal of your choosing for you and a friend. You deserve it. Send me a e-pigeon at email@example.com. Not in Utah? That’s okay—I’m willing to travel.