We had very little prior information about the Central African Republic, commonly known as the CAR. Our guidebook had only a couple of pages about it, most of which seemed to be very out of date, with almost no concrete information. We had heard the tales of the dictator Bokassa who used to publically feed his enemies to his pet lions and crocodiles, who had ordered massacres of protesting primary school kids and who had been rumoured to indulge in cannabalism, but that was in the 1970's. We had searched for information on the internet, but we found little. There were some newswire articles about dire petrol shortages and crime waves but it appeared that this problem had been solved a few weeks before we were set to travel. There were some human rights reports of systematic summary executions of suspected criminals, but tourists are immune from this. We also found a few traveller's reports from 1998 recounting that all the land borders had been closed to foreigners due to the high incidence of highway banditry, but the woman in the CAR embassy in Yaounde had happily sold us visas, naturally overcharging us, and assured us that the borders were open again. We also met one Central African refugee in Yokadouma who regaled us with tales of horror, mayhem and flight through showers of bullets, but he assured us that the country was quiet now. Thus, there didn't seem to be any overriding reason not to go to the CAR, but just in case, we decided that we'd first go to Berberati, the first town in CAR - just across the border - and test the water. If things looked dodgy we'd be able to flee back to the charted lands of Cameroon. Also, since Berberati was a mere 150 km or so from where we were in Yokadouma, we should be able to get there before dark if we set out early enough.
We were also running short of money as we had been unpleasantly surprised to discover that Yokadouma had no means of cashing travellers cheques. We were down to our last $25 cash, so we had to try to make it to Berberati as quickly as possible and hope that there was a bank there. Therefore we arose at the unprecedented time of 4 am, to make absolutely certain that no bus could escape before us, and made our way to Yokadouma's small bus terminal. We approached the ticket office, woke the official who was sleeping inside, and asked about buses to Berberati. To our dismay we were told that none were travelling for 2 days. We couldn't afford to wait. The official explained our options. We could try to hitch a lift with one of the sugar lorries which take passengers directly across the border, along unmarked tracks to the village of Yola in the CAR, from where we could hope to find onward transport to Berberati the following day. Otherwise we could take a bus 100km North to the main road and hope to hitch a ride from there across the border. We decided on the second option and duly climbed aboard yet another cramped minibus.
The bus slowly filled and by 6:30 am it pulled out of town towards the North. After passing through a few tiny villages we came to a slightly bigger village with a customs officer and a pole across the road. He asked us, through the window, where we were headed. "Berberati" we replied. His eyes lit up and he said "but there is a vehicle going to Berberati from here today", pointing into the village, "you see that white one down there". We were slow to believe him, suspecting a ploy to strand us in his jurisdiction but a number of bystanders confirmed his story. It was market day here, in Gari Gombole, and many Central Africans had come across the border to buy goods and do their shopping, therefore transport was plentiful.
We dismounted from our original bus and followed the customs officer into his office to complete the formalities. This naturally turned out to be an attempt to charge us $10 for a fictional customs pass. We escaped by declaring that, given the unexpected fees we'd have to abandon our trip, and return to Yokadouma. We left his office and walked directly down the road to find the white vehicle that was allegedly travelling to Berberati. It was a small Isuzu 3000kg flatbed truck with a railing around the edge. The owner was delighted to offer us passage for $8, as long as we didn't mind sitting in the back "like the Central Africans do", as he put it, with a large grin. His brother issued us with official tickets and advised us to eat some food while we were waiting. We deemed this prudent and headed into a nearby food shack.
Although it was only 8 am, we opted for a large and heavy meal of the local cassava staple with soup and a lump of meat, accompanied by a bottle of Guinness foreign extra, to steel ourselves for the journey. We watched a dozen young men load a multitude of goods onto the back of the truck: sacks of rice, millet and cassava flour, dried fish, crates of beer piled high, sacks of vegetables, clothes, livestock, clocks and stereos. An aged white man with leathered skin covered in dark blotches emerged from the market throng. He asked us a few questions about our trip and assured us that it was only 90km to Berberati, and that we should be there by noon. We took him for a missionary and thus were sceptical of his estimate since he'd be accustomed to travel in a modern 4 wheel drive.
As we were finishing our meal, 20 people or so came from nowhere, scrambled onto the back of the lorry and started to establish places for themselves among the cargo. We hurried out but were too late to follow the driver's advice and get a seat towards the front; we had to make do with squeezing in the back corner. I sat on the railing and Deirdre sat among the beer crates. Naturally it took the vehicle another hour or so to leave, by which time even more people and goods had joined us in the back. There were at least 30 people on the back as we pulled out of town, in addition to the large cargo. We trundled slowly to the border, only a kilometre away, enough time for me to almost do a back flip off the side as the truck lurched sideways, also causing Dierdre to be partialy buried alive by an avalanche of beer crates.
The Cameroon border post was a little hut set beside a wooden gate which blocked the road. I leapt off the crowded lorry and entered the hut, accompanied by the driver. The desk inside was manned by a small boy who jumped up and went running off to fetch the official. 5 minutes later the official arrived, stamped our passports and demanded a $5 fee. I succeeded in halving the price by pleading lack of cash, but couldn't escape having to pay. We were now down to our last banknote 10,000 CFA, worth about $15. The vehicle continued slowly on its way for about 10 minutes, then it stopped and 6 young men emerged from a hut at the roadside, unloaded the crates of beer and carried them off into the forest. We kept going and sadly the extra space thus created was soon filled by new passengers who were waiting by the roadside every few hundred metres, standing beside large sacks of bulky cargo. After a short while we came to a small village with a large clearing at its centre. There were 5 or 6 vehicles similar to our one all stopped here, each one piled unbelievably high with goods fresh from Gari Gombole's market. Some uniformed customs officials were examining the cargoes, poking and prodding the bags of goods. A crowd of perhaps a hundred people was standing around the vehicles or sitting on the grass underneath trees, waiting patiently. We all dismounted and our driver pointed out the immigration office where we needed to go to obtain a stamp. The officer inside was extremely friendly in stark contrast to the Cameroonians. He asked me about Irish football and Gerry Adams before explaining the disappointing news that there was a $10 fee to get a stamp. I explained that I had absolutely no money since I needed to go to Berberati to change a travellers cheque. He appeared to believe me but was dumbfounded by the situation. "You mean you've got no money at all, not even $2?", he said sounding hurt. He shook his head saying "I can't give you the stamp, you'll have to continue to Berberati and get it there once you have some money". We had no stamp but at least we were free to continue. I hurried out to join the truck, which was once again filled with passengers, all waiting for me, crammed onto the back of the truck, baking in the heat of the rising sun. We started out and before long we stopped at another small huddle of buildings. A fellow passenger advised me that I should go to the commisariat here, but I declined to follow his advice. Nevertheless we were far from inconspicuous on the back of the truck and a prowling policeman soon spotted our white skin and ordered me to their office. There were two officers in the room. They examined our passports and demanded $10 to stamp them. Again I recounted our tale, again they looked flabbergasted. It seemed to be going according to plan when a very angry senior afficer stormed into the room and shouted "$15 each, stamp duty". He started interrogating me and was driven into a rage by my story. The passengers were still sitting outside in extreme discomfort on the truck and the driver now entered to try to hurry up our dealings. He appeared to be perplexed by my unwillingness to pay, negotiated a new price of $8 on our behalf and offered to loan me the money - in return he'd hang onto our passports until we paid him back. Since this would leave us with only $7 left, I was very reluctant to agree but was finally forced to concede defeat when the officer ordered one of his underlings to unload Deirdre and our baggage from the vehicle.
We continued on our way, ever fuller as we picked up more and more people waiting by the side of the road. 4 or 5 young men were employed to load all the extra goods onto the truck. They hung onto the railing at the back while we were travelling and entertained the crowd with their banter. Whenever we were ready to start again after a stop, they'd shout "fasten your seat belts" to the crowd who greeted their jests with loud laughter. In general, the passengers seemed to be in remarkably high spirits considering the excruciating lack of comfort. They were a mixed assortment of people from old men clutching novelty wall clocks, to teenaged womens valiantly protecting tiny babies from the dangers of being squashed by careless passengers or avalanches of cargo. Here, like in Cameroon, all the men were dressed in Western clothes. The flowing robes and brilliantly coloured gowns of West Africa were not to be seen. The women, for their part did wear the same wrap skirts as in West Africa, but with second hand t-shirts rather than the bright tailored tops of West Africa. Still there were some similarities between the regional clothing - sure enough a small boy towards the front was resplendently decked out in a complete replica Manchester United football kit. In general the passengers were very friendly and pleasant towards us, interested to know where we were from and why we were here, and above all anxious that we understand the difficulty of their lives. The phrase: "you see how we suffer?" was one that we heard several times and indeed we would have had great difficulty in not seeing it as this most wearying journey wore on. The only exceptions to the warmth of our fellow passengers was one shifty looking youth who persistently tried to sell me diamonds and a middle aged, uniformed passenger who kept advising me to visit the police station for a stamp in every tiny hamlet that we stopped at.
The countryside which we were travelling through opened out into a rolling woodland with patches of long, thick grasses. The occasional villages were small, orderly affairs. The houses all faced onto the road and were laid out in an unusually formal, ordered way, which made the villages seem somehow artificial. This could be a consequence of the forcible population relocations of the mad dictator Bokassa, who ordered the entire population to move their homes to the environs of one of the country's exceedingly few roads. Mostly the buildings were the familiar rectangular mudbrick affairs, roofed with a thich grass thatch, while a minority of buildings were constructed entirely of bundles of dried grass and looked very vulnerable to being blown down by a wolf. Many buildings were decorated with elaborately patterned woven grass mats and we saw several old men at work constructing these weaves and large baskets of a similar style by the roadside. The villages had many seats and benches fashioned out of cane providing places to sit outside the houses.
At about 1:30 we stopped in a village of about 100 buildings, the largest we'd seen so far. The driver instructed everyone to climb down, as a lot of fresh cargo needed to be loaded. We watched the youths clear a space on the bottom of the truck and fill it with huge bags of grain. The cargo was piled back up on top of these bags, but the people still didn't get back on board. The driver was missing. We stood idly about in the meagre shade waiting for him to return. The local drunkard took this ideal oppurtunity to express his admiration for France to me. I escaped when the driver appeared from behind a hut, beckoned for me to follow him, turned around and dissappeared again. I followed to find him sitting with his family enjoying a hearty lunch. We had come to this village, which turned out to be a large detour, so he could eat with his parents. At least they did offer to share some food with me. They claimed Portuguese origin and indeed they had unusually light skin. After chatting with them for a few minutes, I looked up and saw that everyone had got back on the bus. I hurriedly thanked my hosts and rushed out fearing that I'd lose my place.
Thankfully Deirdre had heroically defended my spot and I settled back into my crevice between two sacks of cassava. Deirdre sat on a bag of flour with her lags dangling over the side. Over lunch some new passengers had joined us and I counted 48 heads on the back of the truck as we started up again. We retraced our steps to the Berberati road, where some women were waiting with 6 big sacks of vegetables. Inevitably we stopped. I protested to Deirdre that there was no way that we could fit the extra load. Just then, an earthmoving lorry rolled into town and pulled to a halt behind us. Some 15 passengers piled off the back and started unloading their luggage and transferring it to our vehicle. Sure enough they all jumped on the back with their sacks of rice and bags of cassava. My position was becoming extremely uncomfortable, even excruciating. A tall, well-built man was sitting on one of my shoulders and I was in constant danger of being swallowed by the sacks of grain. A bystander took this chance to call out to me that phrase that seemed to be the slogan of the CAR. "Do you see how we suffer?", he said, "In Paris you all drive around in your own cars don't you. When you go back, tell them how we suffer". I was too busy suffering to bother correcting his misapprehension about my nationality. After the new passengers had climbed aboard, the driver turned his attention back to the group of women whom we had originally stopped for. Catching a look of increduility on my face, the driver explained to me: "it's the only transport this week. If I don't take them, their goods will rot before they get to market". Still his concern for the women didn't prevent him from fiercely haggling over the price they'd have to pay before being allowed on.
The vehicle continued, ridiculously overburdened. I was in constant pain. We travelled some distance like this until I finally managed to squirm my way to a position alongside Deirdre, dangling my feet over the edge. The cargo now rose well above the railing , so we had to reach down to hold it and it offered minimal protection against falling off. However we deemed this position safest as, if the lorry were to tumble over, which seemed eminently likely as it lurched dangerously from side to side, we'd be thrown to safety. Whenever the lorry did lurch towards our side we were violently swung over the edge, holding onto the rail beneath us like gymnasts on the parallel bars. The road was fringed with thick bushes and trees. Many branches overhung the road. One of the workers hanging onto the back, had the job of warning people when such a branch was coming, but several people received blows to the head anyway. The mood of the passengers stayed miraculously good throughout this grueling ordeal. They laughed loudly at the constant jokes of the workers. They greeted every violent bump, or sudden, dangerous lurch with unrestrained mirth and somebody would invariably catch our eye and, grinning, shake his head - as if to ensure that we hadn't missed the event. Everyone was very concerned that we should understand what it's like for the Central Africans!
The afternoon progressed and the journey wore painfully on. We came to a river which was crossed by means of a hand-pulled ferry. It took half an hour for the ferry owner to haul the bus across the small river with a hand winch. At least this did give us a time to reintroduce blood to our limbs. The crowd's jocularity began to stretch thin at some stages and allow one to see it for what it was, that is a reaction to despair and powerlessness. We stopped at a small village in front of a closed rain gate. Somebody was dispatched to fetch the official in charge of it. It turned out that he was eating dinner and would attend to us afterwards. Half an hour later, waiting crammed onto the truck, he emerged from his house overlooking the road. He walked slowly towards the gate, then suddenly seemed to change his mind. He turned around and began walking back towards the house. As he reached the door, he stopped and grinned at the crowd, it had just been a joke! He came back towards the gate. The people greeted this display of arrogance with a loud burst of raucous laughter. They fell around holding their sides, congratulating the official on his wit, the only response possible short of total despair.
We finally arrived in Berberati at 7:30pm, 10 hours to cover 90 km. Naturally, it was already dark and there appeared to be few buildings in the town with electric light. The driver, who had befriended us at this stage, kindly stopped outside the town's finest hotel and helped us to get our baggage down. Mercifully our room cost only $4, so after recuperating our passports, we had $3 with which to feed ourselves. We asked the receptionist where we could find food. He directed us to the local bakery, but warned us to hurry back as it wasn't safe to be out late at night. We followed his directions and arrived in the bakery, the local evening spot. It was a curious hybrid of a place. One part of it served French pastries, another part served beer. The decor was dour, reminiscent of soviet-era Eastern Europe, and all the fare was served in archaic style by formal waiters with silver trays and tongs. The clientele was all African, groups of 2 or 3 people huddled quietly over a beer. We learned to our dismay that beer cost twice the price that it did in Cameroon but we were still able to afford a dinner of two breadrolls and a shared Mocaf beer to celebrate our safe arrival in the Central African Republic.
We arose early the following morning and set out to take care of the pressing matter of our finances. We enquired from the hotel's gateman and were exceedingly relieved to be informed that there was a functioning bank in town. He directed us to it, a few hundred yards further along the town's main road. We promptly followed his intructions and walked along this undulating, muddy track until we came to the bank. This was supposed to be the centre of town yet the buildings were widely spaced and surrounded by patches of greenery. The bank was shiny and new, with 5 respectably dressed employees sitting attentively behind desks with modern computers. Not only was there none of the long queues normal in African banks, there were absolutely no other customers during the hour we spent there. They were happy to cash our travellers' cheques but had clearly never performed the operation before, as they all gathered around one monitor to figure out how to negotiate correctly through their computerised system. Eventually we succesfully got our money, and since it was now 9 am and we had long missed all onward transport from Berberati, we set out to uncover the delights of Central Africa's second town.
Berberati is a small town, with perhaps 10,000 inhabitants. The town is centred on a 'T' junction of two muddy tracks. Near this junction lie the small bus-park and market, the bank and the few large buildings; administrative offices, churches, a school, and some commercial enterprises. The few large shops are big concrete hulks, obviously designed with defensibility in mind. We visited one to buy batteries and soap. It was run by an old Portuguese man, with the tough weatherbeaten face of a frontier capitalist. He asked us the purpose of our presence in this far-flung corner and when we told him, he shook his head in wonder and expressed his admiration. Even more fortified than the shops are the 3 or 4 big diamond buying centres, with razor wire, high walls and gates manned by at least 4 heavily-armed guards. Otherwise there is little evidence of any commerce or industry save for a few small, poorly-stocked, informal shops.
The streets are muddy, uneven and empty of vehicles. In the entire day that we spent there we saw perhaps three cars, sturdy 4-wheel drives, driven by white men with tough faces: merchants, managers of the nearby coffee plantations, or diamond dealers. We wandered through the market but hurried away, intimidated by the stares of the gangs of idle youth standing listlessly around. Except for the curious bar-bakery which we had visited the previous evening, the only eating and drinking establishment of any kind were a couple of crumbling 'nite-bars'. These looked like relics of happier days, for now the walls that were painted with bright pictures of revelry were dull and flaking. Weeds pushed through the concrete and they had a deserted look about them. After making some enquiries, we finally located one, on the outskirts of town, which was still functioning and served food and drink. The bar was equipped with a television and a satellite dish and there was a group of burly men watching it over a beer. We sat in the empty restaurant and ordered chicken, the one item on the menu. We sipped a beer while we waited. 20 minutes later a small boy on a big bike arrived with a live chicken and a bag of potatoes. It was a long wait.
After lunch, since the sun was now setting, we hurried home, through the slow centre and back to our hotel before darkness fell, since the streets seemed full of desperate and idle youth. Our hotel was, like all the other buildings in town, built for security. It was surrounded by a high wall and a watchman sat in a booth guarding the gate. We deemed that we'd sampled enough of Berberati's charms in one day and since we had survived unharmed thusfar, we decided to press on into the depths of the country, to the capital Bangui. Thus we told the watchman that we would be leaving the next day and asked him to wake us in time for the Bangui bus. He informed us that we should be at the station by 4:30 am to ensure a seat, but since it'd still be dark at that time, we'd need to bring a security guard with us. We thought that this advice was merely a means of earning a tip for the watchman and that the precaution was unneccassary since Berberati is a small town and thusfar in Africa, we had found small towns to be very safe indeed, since the strong social structures of the community guarantee security. Any delinquence is sure to be observed by a relative, neighbour or acquaintance who will ensure that news of the wrongdoing is effectively known. Besides what criminals are desperate enough to get up at 4 am? Nevertheless we agreed to be accompanied since at least he would be able to show us the correct place to wait and it wouldn't be expensive. Therefore we arranged for him to wake us the next morning in time for the bus.
Having slept for a few short hours, we heard the appointed knocking at our door, shortly after 4 am. We dressed quickly and hurried out to find the watchman waiting for us. He accompanied us out of the hotel compound, holding our torch for us, and onto the muddy main street. It was still entirely dark as he led us towards the bus park. As we approached the 'T' junction at the town's centre, we could dimly make out the shapes of a dozen human figures, standing in the middle of the road ahead of us. Their shapes were silhouetted by the strong moonlight but it was a misty night and the gloom gave them an eerie appearance, like zombies. When we got nearer, we could discern them more clearly. They were all young men, standing moitonless in the road, apparently waiting for some event. They stared sullenly at us as we passed them, and I was now very glad to have the watchman with us. One called out a question to me, asking where we were headed, "Bangui", I replied and hurried on. The bus had not yet arrived when we got to the bus park. There was a small group of people who also seemed to be waiting for a bus so we thanked the watchman, tipped him, found a bench near the others and settled down to wait. As we waited we were pestered by a young man who appeared to be trying to get a tip from us for helping us to catch the bus. We did our best to ignore him, as he offered to do various services for us.
After 20 minutes or so there were barely more than a handful of other passengers and we began to question the wisdom of arriving so early. Then, in a sudden flurry of activity and commotion, a sound of a heavy diesel engine was heard and became increasingly louder, until a huge vehicle turned into the yard of the bus park. It was not so much a bus as a converted heavy-duty goods lorry in which the cargo container had been converted to take passengers. Holes had been cut in the sides to serve as windows and benches had been bolted to the base for seating.
As soon as this 'bus' appeared, bedlam broke out around us. Our candidate helper began gesturing franctically towards the bus with one hand while pulling at my backpack with his other. I shook him off, slung the backpack over my shoulder, grabbed our satchel in my other hand and charged towards the bus with the baggage dangling from my limbs. For some reason there appeared to be about 6 passengers on the bus already as it pulled into the station. Their sillhouettes could be made out, all standing in the aisle, as the bus circled the yard and came to a halt in front of us. I raced for the door still trying to fend off the helper whose hands I could feel dragging at one of my bags. When I got to the bus, closely followed by the helper, there was a small bunch of men crowding around the door in front of me. For some inexplicable reason this group seemed to mysteriously part as I approached, letting me at the door. I grabbed onto the sides of the door with both hands, to haul myself onto the elevated seating area. A guy was standing in the doorway, blocking my entry and he seemed not to be moving out of my way. I felt something holding me back and looked behind me to see two hands hanging onto my pockets. Suddenly everything made sense. I beat the hands away and forced myself past the guy in the doorway with great difficulty because I was burdened by two heavy bags. I stumbled forward into the aisle and felt a hand unzip my back pocket. I whirled around to deter the culprit but almost immediately I felt the clasp on top of my backpack being popped open behind me. I tried to make a dive for a seat, a defensible space where I could have my back to a wall, but everytime I made for a seat, a large man would suddenly appear and snatch the cushioned base of the seat away, from right under my nose. At first I didn't give much thought to this, accepting it as just another random element of the general lunacy, but when it happened for the third time in succession, it dawned on me that these snarling young men who were snatching the seats were claiming that they had reserved them and were demanding that I pay for the privelege of their use. Yet I was still under assault by the pack of thieves who were persistently trying to drag stuff out of my bag behind me and I was in no state to undertake a fierce negotiation with a seat-bandit. In no time at all, all of the seat bases were stored in the overhead luggage racks and a dozen tough-looking men stood around aggressively guarding their 'reserved' domains. I was at a complete loss, there was a limit to how long I could beat off the pack of thieves and I was out of ideas. Then suddenly I spotted Deirdre at the other end of the bus. She had climbed on the back door during all the commotion. Since, in Africa, it is almost always assumed that the man carries the money, the pack of thieves had totally ignored her and she had even managed to secure a seat at the back of the bus. I made a final Hurculean effort and broke away from the thieves, barged past the guys blocking my path, and dived into the seat beside Deirdre. I struggled out of the backpack's straps and swung it around onto the ground in front of me. I clasped the bag firmly between my thighs to protect it and Deirdre similarly protected hers. Next I placed my satchel, locked with a mini-padlock, on my lap with the strap around my neck. I closed all the zips and clasps which the thieves had opened and, having thus made our possesions safe, I assessed the damage of the initial assault.
A sinking feeling came over me as I turned my attention from the bags to my pockets. It felt as if they were far less full than they should have been. In panic I checked my left pocket and was enormously relieved to find my passport and wallet, with all my money, still there. My right pocket was empty, but surely there had been something in it before? I went through the possibilities and realised that I had put our torch in it before running for the bus. It was gone. Still, it was a very poor quality plastic torch, made in China and bought in Senegal for about a dollar. Despite its sentimental value, having lit our way across West Africa, it would be easily replaced. Nothing else was missing. I breathed a sigh of relief at the smallness of the loss. But we were certainly not out of the woods yet.
As I shifted my attention from my pockets and bags to the surrounding environment, I noticed that one of the young men was standing right beside me, shouting something in an angry tone. I slowly came to the realisation that he had 'reserved' this seat and was now demanding payment for it. He was demanding $10, a ridiculous ammount considering the fare was only $15, and he reacted with aggressive indignation to our offers of reasonable sums. We refused to be intimidated and despite his rising anger, our offer remained firm at $1. As this argument went on, I noticed, behind our tormentor, a familiar face. It was one of our fellow passengers from our trip to Berberati, a friendly young student with whom we had briefly chatted during the journey. I thought that this might be our salvation and called out a greeting to him. He greeted me back and I said "hey, it's pretty crazy here, he?", indicating our enemy with a nod of my head. I had been expecting him to come to our aid, but he only nodded sadly and said: "you see how it is for us". Until this point I had assumed that all this banditry was aimed at us, the rich foreigners. Now I looked around the bus and noticed that there were passengers sitting in most of the seats and every passenger was in the same situation as us, attempting to fend off one of these angry seat-bandits. I understood, for the first time, that we were in a terrorised society where security did not exist.
I turned my attention back to our immediate situation and tried to press the dollar into our assailant's hand. He refused to take it, shook his head in disgust, turned away, climbed down from the bus and walked off. We had survived this first battle but we knew that he wouldn't give up so easily and we remained in a heightened state of alert as we sat there.
However, the next onslaught proved to come from a different source. A scruffy young man, no older than 18, dressed in ragged and dirty clothes, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to move over. This came as quite a surprise as myself and Deirdre were squeezed tightly onto the narrow bench with no room to spare. However, the young man informed me that here, in the CAR, each bench seats three passengers, but still I refused to budge at all. He looked far too poor to be travelling on such an expensive journey and after our earlier experience we were extremely suspicious and feared that he might be another thief, especially since there seemed to be plenty of more spacious spots available elsewhere. Therefore I told him to go elsewhere, but still he persisted and eventually perched his bottom on the edge of the seat without our consent. Ten minutes passed in an undeclared war of attrition between our bottoms as he tried to squeeze further onto the seat and I did my best to hold firm. My suspicions of his motives were heightened further when he adjusted the position of his arms a couple of times in such a way that his hand brushed against my thigh, as if he was trying to establish where I kept my wallet. He was on my left side, towards the aisle, so I switched my wallet from my left to my right pocket, further away from him, and kept my hand buried in my pocket with a tight grip on the wallet.
Then suddenly, the owner of the seat reappeared. He was still angry and was still demanding a ludicrous sum for the privelege of using his place. Naturally, we still refused to increase our bid, and he became still angrier. He switched his attention to our new neighbour, shouting with equal vehemence at him, but since it was in Sanga, the lingua franca of the CAR, we didn't understand the meaning of the words. Presently he grabbed our neighbour and started trying to drag him from the seat. This effort was unsuccesful and he desisted after a while and turned his attention back to us. Our seat was the last bench on the right hand side of the bus and the back door was directly behind us. I noticed that a tall man, whom I felt certain had been among the pack of thieves, had climbed onto the bus and was standing immediately behind our seat, observing us. The back of our seat was a wooden plank and there was a large gap between this and the seatbase. I realised that he was waiting for me to take my hand from my right pocket so he could put his in and remove my wallet. I buried my hand deeper.
By now the seat owner was in such a fury that he was taking swipes at me, which I was doing my best to fend off with my free hand. He was screaming loudly, obviously for the benefit of the other passengers, "give me my money, give it to me". I had been wondering why this gang hadn't just pulled a knife, a gun, or simply beat me up, to rob all of our valuables, but this public display made me realise that these thieves could not run the risk of appearing publically in a situation where they could be indisputably identified as the perpatrators of a crime. They had to act in a gang and confuse the victim so that the individual thief couldn't be fingered or else their banditry had to operate under the pretence of a legitimate act like reserving a seat. For a victim, or an observer, had the ultimate power to point their finger at an individual and shout "thief!" and from what we had been told thusfar, this would likely lead to a beating form an angry mob, even a lynching or a summary execution if a security officer was present.
This realisation, that there were some limits that the thieves could not overstep, gave me confidence to continue resisting. My assailant now started threatening to take my hat in lieu of payment - my beloved explorer's hat. But I refused to take the bait and kept my hand firmly in my pocket, guessing that this act of open theft was beyond the limits. I was correct for he hesitated before grabbing it, allowing Deirdre to swipe it off my head and stuff it safely in her pocket. I was not enjoying this situation. In front of me the seat's owner was still making lunges which I was fending off with my left hand. To my left there was a youth whom I strongly suspected of being a pickpocket, and just behind me another lingered. The youth on my left now took a large value bill from his pocket and handed it theatrically to the seat-owner, obviously trying to exhibit to us that even the locals had to pay the price he was demanding. He then turned to us and started explaining, in the friendly tones of a helpful fellow passenger, that one just had to pay. This convinced us that the three were acting in league. We told him in no uncertain terms what we thought of his advice.
Next they tried one last trick to get me to remove my hand from my pocket. The man behind leaned over our seat, as if to adjust a bag in the overhead luggage rack. As he did so, he dropped the burning hot cone from the top of his ciggarette into my lap. This coincided with a renewed onslaught from the seat owner, but still I refused to release my hand from my pocket. I bounced up and down in the seat to shake the burning cone free, and switched to the offensive, screaming, for all the bus to hear: "what the fuck is this, take your damn money and leave me alone", and thrust the dollar aggressively into our assailant's hand. Miraculously it worked, he took the money and departed with a curse. I looked behind and sure enough our friend had vanished, only the youth on the seat beside us remained. He started trying to get into our favours by denouncing the other two as thieves but we flatly refused to respond. After some fifteen minutes trying in vain to win our confidences, he confirmed all of our worst suspicions; from one of his pockets he produced a bible and, holding it up, asked us if we were interested.
We sat there for what seemed like an eternity, in an extremely heightened state of tension, watching the restless hands of our bible wielding neighbour like a hawk, constantly expecting hordes of thieves to dive in the window or pounce from the luggage rack. But the bus slowly filled, the seat-bandits one by one came to arrangements with the passengers and drifted away, and still ourselves and our belongings remained intact. By 9:30 am the bus was full, 3 bodies were crammed onto each bench and the aisle was filled with dozens more bodies and many large, shapeless sacks of cargo. By 10 am when the joyous sound of the engine starting was heard and the bus finally pulled out of the yard, some 20 more passengers had joined our merry crew, on the roof.
The distance from Berberati to Bangui is some 650 km and from the speed of our vehicle, which seemed to have a top speed of about 35 kph, it looked like being a long trip. At least the traffic was light, and for the next six hours we passed along muddy tracks through wild and lush woodlands with barely a hint of human presence save for a couple of insignificant hamlets, and saw no more than a couple of other vehicles. However, I had little time to watch the surroundings as I had to remain constantly vigilant regarding the unwanted presence to my left who seemed to never tire of moving his hands to different positions out of my view. Indeed a kind of tension seemed to hang over the whole bus and most of the passengers seemed to keep to themselves, clutching tightly to their luggage, all of which seemed to be padlocked closed. The only exceptions were a group of prosperous looking, middle-aged men who were swigging bottles of guinness and becoming increasingly boisterous as the alcohol took effect. We stopped twice, once at a police roadblock where we all had to dismount and present our identification to a group of officers behind a desk. They seemed surprisingly disciplined, with clean uniforms, bright bearings and upright stances, yet they still demanded $2 to let us pass. We hadn't the energy to refuse and duly coughed up. The one Cameroonian on the bus fared even worse. He was hit for a $7.50 fee to be allowed to proceed. The second stop was at a large village where we were thankfully able to buy a soft drink, 2 boiled eggs and a cob of corn, the first food we'd come across all day.
As the afternoon progressed and the journey wore monotonously on, we became increasingly tired and hungry. Our legs were stuffed tightly around our packs with literally no space to adjust their position which became agonising as the blood circulation to our legs was cut off. We had got up at 4 am and the pain allied with the constant effort of remaining vigilant was rapidly sapping my energy. Whatsmore, a boiled egg and a few grains of corn was insufficient food for such a gruelling trip; the foodsellers who normally line the roads of African countries were almost completely absent here. On two occasions we did come across women selling curious looking bunches of small peach-coloured fruits, but their entire stock was quickly snapped up, leaving many frustrated passengers. Thus we felt a tremendous surge of joy when, at around 7:30pm, we pulled into a small village and not only did we come to a rest outside a shop, but our neighbour arose, picked up his bag, waved farewell to us, and disappeared into the village.
Thereafter I found the trip much easier, a packet of biscuits eased our hunger and our new neighbout, a young woman with a small baby, was much less threatening than her predecessor. I was able to relax my vigilance and even allow my eyes to close. We rolled on through the night, along more muddy tracks which were occasionaly innundated with enormous puddles, like small lakes, which required us to drive through the bush around them. I succeeded in catching a few brief moments of sleep by resting my head on the back of the seat in front of me while we were stopped at a squalid little village. At some stage during the night we got stuck in the mud and many of the passengers had to dismount to help free us, but I pretended to be asleep. Soon afterwards we arrived at the surfaced road leading to Bangui, one of only a few hundred kilometres of tarmac in the country; a very welcome sight but our pace barely increased.
The sun dawned to find us at one of the series of security roadblocks which line the roads leading towards the capital city. Again we were too tired and morally defeated to protest the demanded $2 fee, again the Cameroonian had to pay more. By 10am we had arrived at km 50, a larger roadblock and again we had to pay. By 11:30 we were at km 12, the really major roadblock before the city proper begins. There were a dozen low buildings lining the road before the barrier, each housing a large number of uniformed officers sitting behind desks. It was Sunday morning but there was still a large and busy crowd of vendors, urchins, idlers and voyagers milling about on the road. 3 or 4 vehicles were waiting to cross the barrier and their passengers were huddled around various buildings, waiting for their papers to be cleared. Considering the number of uniformed personnel and the confusion of the crowd, it seemed that this checkpoint could prove expensive and traumatic, given our weakened state. Thus we decided to duck down in our seats and remain in the vehicle. To our surprise this simple ploy succeeded without a hitch. The other passengers dismounted, then returned in dribs and drabs until the bus was once again full. We passed through the barrier without anyone noticing us, and drove on into the city of Bangui.
The only real task that remained was to get ourselves and our possessions safely from the bus and onto a taxi which could whisk us to the secure confines of a hotel. This had always been the bit that we'd been most afraid of. Bangui, along with virtually every other capital city in the region, has a terrible reputation for violent crime and the most dangerous moments are, as always, when one first arrives and is laden down with luggage. After our experiences in the tiny town of Berberati, we could scarcely imagine what horrors awaited us here. Our strategy was, once we got to the bus station, to remain in the middle of the crowd at all times, only leaving it to make a quick dart for a taxi. However our plans were completely shattered when the bus pulled over in some scruffy suburb and almost all the passengers alighted. We were left on the bus with a mere handful of people, among whom were a group of young men who took a sudden interest in talking to us, again innocently brushing their hands against my thigh as they gesticulated.
Finally the bus came to a halt, not as we had expected in a station, but in a derelict lot just off a quiet street. There were no taxis around, just 5 ragged youth lounging against a wall. We grabbed our bags and leapt from the bus, judging that anything was better than to stay there like sitting ducks. The loungers hurried over towards us, not as we had feared, to relieve us of our belongings, but to ask us if we needed a taxi. We nodded assent and one of them charged into the middle of the road where he forced a passing taxi to stop by pointing at his skin and mouthing the word "white". There were people already in the car but our helper's actions must have convinced the driver that he had greater priorities and his passengers were quickly evicted before he turned around and drove over to pick us up. We quickly fixed a price, tipped our helper and plunged into the safe haven of that wonderful car.
NEXT CHAPTER: Bangui, capital of misery....