I arrived at Olloba with the intention of resting but the bicycle was shattered, and so was I. After a few hours of lying on my back, now on a mattress without mice, I could barely feel my muscles. Despite this, I had no other choice than to stand up to work on the bike if I was hoping to get out of there someday. Fortunately, I had the company of the villagers who, curious about the unusualness of my presence, did what they could to help me. The blocks of mud had dried out, the wheels were no longer spinning, the gears were not working and the brakes were completely stuck, I had to put all back into shape in order to continue.
My task as a mechanic extends well into the night when an electric generator roared feeding the speakers and the little coloured lights of the only bar in the village. It was Tuesday, Jean had finally arrived with the new shipment of beers (although I suspect he had already drunk half of them on the way) and the village was partying. Instead of going to sleep, I spent the rest of the night dancing to the beat of Congolese soukous among drunken men and gorgeous Congolese women of sensual bodies and hypnotic charisma. What a life this is, it's worth it to get tired this way!
When the generator runs out of gasoil, that ephemeral illusion called electricity disappears and everything returns to normal. Lights and sounds are extinguished, darkness comes back and the eternal buzz of the jungle revives. I fall in bed with the sweet melody of every night until I wake up, a few hours later, with the clarity of the day accompanied by that same sweet melody. My eyelids struggle to open, they reluctantly move, almost with regret, until I can finally open my eyes. I find myself in exactly the same position in which I had fallen asleep, it is as if time had frozen. My eyelids shut again, like blinds whose strap has suddenly been cut-off. The struggle between the opening and closing of my eyes in slow motion every morning persists for half an hour until I can no longer extend it. I have a war to fight through.
Jean has been repairing his pickup since early in the morning to start the way back to Mekambo. I do not know where this man gets his energy from. I bid him farewell with great affection thanking him for his invaluable help the day before. Meanwhile, the villagers of Olloba point the way to me. They say: 'It's there!' But I look in that direction and see nothing but a thick front of vegetation that seems impenetrable. That's why I ask again, 'Are you all sure there is a way?' - 'Yes, don't worry, it is there' Henri, the head of the village, responds to me and adds 'Go straight ahead". I say goodbye to everyone and ride the bike in the direction of the battlefield waiting for the unexpected.
I go for about 200 meters until I finally see a slot that opens between the thick vegetation. At that moment, my feeling is that of being thrown into the mouth of a large carnivorous plant that I do not know if I can ever get out of. Its palate and the inside of his cheeks made of wild plants that I do not know and its tongue has the texture of a gelatinous mass of mud in which I slip and sink down to my ankles. As soon as I enter it, I start to alternate between pedalling, juggling to avoid falling and pushing, while my head keeps repeating: - "Nicolas, where the fuck did you get into? Would you be able to get out of here this time?"
I hadn't even gone for 1 km by the time the jungle had already swallowed me completely. Its tongue of mud is something that I can only imagine under my feet now because vegetation is so thick that I can no longer see it below. I never felt as much uncertainty as at that very moment. "Am I heading in the right direction? did I miss a turnoff? Will there be a way out of this?". Many times I have been asked me whether I felt afraid. Of course, I feel afraid! But instead of turning fear into my worst enemy I transform it into my best companion. That way, I do not let it paralyze me. My mind is set and clear: I have to get out of here, and there is only one way to do it: keep moving! I do this with blind confidence despite not knowing where I'm going.
I push and I push opening the way through thick vegetation. I do not see the ground beneath and sometimes the bike falls and the effort to lift it up is increasingly harder. The humidity impregnates my body, my skin itches, the sporadic rains are a balm that soothes me to continue but I also discover that the mouth of this great carnivorous plant also has teeth. The plant is called makinga and the edge of its thin, flimsy leaves has the sharp edge of a samurai sword. They do not caress me, they rip me apart. I am trapped in this maze of makingas where my skin is cut like butter. I feel my arms burning like fire in every trace that this devilish plant etches in my body, as though seeking to engrave in it the history of this book of the jungle.
I continue making my way trying to ignore the pain in my body. With each stroke, I feel my skin release adrenaline. I scream to contain the pain and push harder to move forward hoping that the trail opens up again, but the intense burning and insatiable itching force me to stop every few meters to seek temporary relief in scratching myself. It is a futile effort because my nails are very short and my hands are full of mud. I want to scratch myself and I can not, it's desperate, that's why I use metallic parts of the bicycle that give me immediate relief, but that increases and extends the irritation. I need to get away from these damn things. Perhaps now I really get to understand that the skin is the largest organ of our body.
The fucking trail finally opens up again. I can now keep away from the makingas but in exchange, I am sunk down to my knees in the swamps. Now I have to suffer having my legs buried in the throat of this carnivorous plant. It is a thick chocolate mousse that, full of small sharp stones and cutting roots, slowly wears down the thin fibres of the skin around my ankles. Now it is only a matter of time before the worms begin to abuse the free banquet offered at the feast of my wounds.
Again and again, this wanna-be-trail disfigures throughout the day, sometimes until disappearing altogether, or fading in between the makinga bushes, or deforming completely in the shape of muddy swamps. At other times, it is submerged under the immense puddles of water in which I can only wish that my bicycle would float. But nothing could be further from reality, and there I go, heading straight to the sinking of my own Titanic, where, as a captain, I have the responsibility of bringing it out of every storm. Under the water the wheels are bogged down in the mud, the mechanisms of the gears get stuck and my front panniers have so many holes already that they are more useful as a strainer for spaghetti than as waterproof bags.
Many hours pass, or it is my head that reconfigures the sense of time making this experience an infinite eternity out of every minute I spend here. After all, isn't it time as much a mental construction as our limitations are? Time or its illusion, cease to exist the moment that the sublime deep experience of the present takes over our lives. The intensity of each moment forces me healthily to think of nothing more than what I am going through right now, thus becoming one with my present moment. With every step I take, with every breath I inhale, I absorb the jungle in its entirety, its sounds, its scents, its textures. I quantitatively progress a few miserable 20 km per day, but qualitatively it is so great that it would not even make sense to try to measure it.
Life in the jungle
I'm exhausted, I can't feel my muscles and the multiple scratches of the 'makingas' burn my skin. I thought I would be completely alone but to my great joy, I arrived at the first village in the middle of this thick jungle. From the groove that I have been penetrating throughout the day, suddenly a jungle clearing opens and in it I appear from the bushes. They are Bantu and Pygmy villages. Their faces are the most surprised I have seen to this day. Through their gestures, I can only perceive that they are saying: "what the hell is a white guy on a bicycle doing here? ". Since days ago, already since Gabon, several people kept confirming to me that nobody has been seen on a bicycle before around here. I am the first one and my presence is something like discovering science fiction for them.
In a world where electricity and material goods are not known, seeing a camera causes as much curiosity and euphoria as stupor and confusion. When I pull it out of the bag a revolution is built around me, and I do not understand why, when I point it at them, men and children throw themselves to the ground laughing their asses off and screaming. I do not understand anything, I do not know what is happening or why they do it, but I do not think much, it is of no use to rationalise this moment and I throw myself on the grown with them. It's just too much fun to let it pass.
Whenever I find myself in extreme situations, I see more and more the enormous importance that the human element has in them when it comes to alleviating the roughness in order to be able to cope with them more easily. No matter how hard the world around me may become in this inhospitable jungle, I always find in people a deep feeling of affection, concern, the intention to approach me, to talk, to offer help and to fill my days with joy that only another human being can transmit to me. My biggest daily effort is to get to the villages to spend my nights since there is no physical space during my days where I can hang my mosquito net to sleep. In them, I feel protected, and those people, isolated from everything and that at first glance may have nothing, actually show me that they have everything, with their spontaneous carefree smiles and an internal joy that I am not used to see in the world which I come from.
Road to peace
Outside the villages, the war continues. The more kilometers I move forward, the worse it gets, and it gets exponentially worse, so much that the last thing I could ever imagine, is that peace will come back at some point. If I entered the jungle by the mouth of a carnivorous plant, and I passed through its throat, I suddenly feel that I am now reaching the stomach, where everything is a gross mass of sticky mud that leads to constantly bogging down. I have to drag the bike through violent jerks to be able to move it. Now the 80kg are transformed into virtually 300 kg. The panniers come off, they sink.The straps of my sandals are mostly torn apart and soon the sole with separate completely.
It is a disproportionate physical exercise and my energies are draining at a much faster rate than I can recover them. It is the result of so much wear and tear, but even more so, the consequence of the poor diet I've had in the last month, a diet reduced to manioc, pasta (when I found it) and, at best, accompanied by the nasty canned sardines. Nothing grows here, neither nutritious food, nor fruits. For weeks I have had almost no protein or vitamins and all the carbohydrates I eat, no longer find fat in my body to burn. I lose strength, I lose kilos. I know that soon I will begin to run on emergency energies and if I do not improve my diet soon, my defences will drop and I will be exposed to get sick.
With the broken sandals hanging from the handlebar, I push barefoot the last kilometres of this hell, when suddenly there are long slopes. Pushing an 80 kg bicycle barefoot on soft mud uphill becomes a caricature task. I push and I slip. The efforts are tripled because to the usual muscles I use to move forward, I have to add the muscles I need to prevent myself and/or the bike from falling. The small sharp stones cut the soles of my feet and my whole body itches. Drenched in sticky sweat, dozens of bugs come to use my body like a goddamned solarium. The urge is stronger than me, I know it is a mistake and I still free one hand to crush them but the other one is not strong enough to hold the weight nor to maintain balance. The bike falls, I fall. I get up, I try to lift the bike. At the count of 1, 2,3 I push, but the mud and the ground are not strong enough to counterbalance the weight. I let it go, I fall and try again. I fall again and repeat.
I'm trapped in a hell that never seems to end. I have left the stomach of the carnivorous plant to get to the worst part of it: the intestines. I'm clearly shrouded in shit now. With a combination of stoicism and determination, I put all my strength to leave that very same day. By the end of it, I managed to do more kilometres than I had done the day before. I did nothing more and nothing less than 21 km! That is 2km more than the day before and it only took me 10 hours. Soon after getting over that infernal hill, the path becomes consistent again and now I assume I have reached the rectum of the plant. Not that I find any pleasure in being in that place, but at least I'm excited to think that I'm already close to the exit. Suddenly the jungle begins to open, the light at the end of the tunnel appears, I see the sky above me, and a small river ahead.
It's been 5 days since I stamped my passport in Mekambo. Officially, I've done 120 km, but they felt like 2500!. The carnivorous plant has devoured me, chewed me, thrown acids at me, digested me, dissolved me in shit and finally spat me out to the water. I plunge euphorically into the river, I submerge again and again. I splash, I laugh, I enjoy the clean water running through my body, cooling me, cleaning me. I get drunk by inhaling the scent of soap and shampoo, it's intoxicating. This is more than a bath, it is a purification ritual.
I have a joy inside that overwhelms me. It is electricity that runs through my body, it is absolute physical, mental and spiritual bliss. This war is over and I have won the battle. I am the first cycle-traveler that crosses from Gabon to Congo via this unknown border crossing. I know there will be many more wars ahead, but nobody can take this victory away from me anymore. Now, I only have to find where to get the entry stamp for my passport and proceed to the next battle, because now nothing and nobody can destroy me. It all started when that friendly Gabonese guy told me: "ça c'est la guerre!". Now, while I bathe in this river I would like to be able to tell him: -et ça c'est la paix! - (and this is peace!) from every point you look at it.