The rainforest

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I knew little and nothing about Gabon before crossing the border, and that is perhaps why I arrived there with so much interest. Since I was very young, in my habit of being hypnotized for several hours looking at the map of the world, many countries aroused my curiosity just by the sound of their names. Gabon, for some reason I could not explain, was one of them. I liked to say: "Gabon", I want to go to: "Gabon", and because one cannot be made curious but one is born curious or not: where was I finally arriving now at 37 years old? - Of course, Gabon! I had been pedalling for almost 3 weeks on the equatorial savannah, I was bored with the monotony, fed up with the absence of shelter from this infernal humid heat, exposed to a punishing sun and a sky without filters. And as if that were not enough, I arrived at the last town of the Congo, 20 km from the Gabonese border, at the worst possible time in the year. It was not the rain, nor the heat, nor social conflict.

For some reason, unknown to me until that moment, I saw that in this hot town, everybody was wearing long trousers and even a shirt, unlike the rest of the country where everyone wears light clothes. When I went down to the river of the town to bathe, the young man who accompanied me to show me the way said: "You should not be in shorts" - why? I responded. Because we are in petit furú season - in what? .....

I would have liked to take a photo of them, but you need a microscope to do it. The petit furú are the tenth the size of a midge, they are almost invisible and it is one of the worst vermin that I have had to suffer. As my friend explained what they were, hundreds of them were already devouring my legs, my neck, my back without me realising it. In fact, it was not until the next day that I knew, when I had to begin to compulsively scratch my whole body. The skin is coloured a little red but there are no rashes. From the ankles to the neck, the itching became intolerable. I held the handlebars with one hand to scratch with the other and alternated. I would push on a pedal down while using the opposite to scratch my ankles and calves and alternated. The metal tips of the pedal surface, designed to prevent the footwear from slipping, served perfectly for that purpose now.

 So I spent three whole days, desperate at times, until I reached Franceville, with outbreaks of itchiness so violent that on some parts of the body I made myself bleed from scratching myself so much. The itching would take a whole week to disappear completely, just to give way to the moment when the bites of millions of other new bugs arrived as I entered the jungle.

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I had no intention of staying in the second largest city in Gabon, much less continue to the capital on the seal road, so I headed towards the remote north, straight to the heart of the jungle. As soon as I left Franceville I was already on a dusty orange dirt road, and a few hours later, before the sun fell, I was enveloped in leafy vegetation. Neither the slow pace of the bicycle is able to reduce the speed at which the transition occurs from the equatorial savanna to the jungle. Now I could hear the birds, the monkeys, and the hum of millions of bugs as I rejoiced in the deep green of the trees, the redness of the earth, and the freshness of the plants.

I had entered the jungle, not far from the Equator, where the passage from day to night occurs almost in the blink of an eye. The happiness for having arrived was invading me, but the enthusiasm for the months ahead of me generated an internal excitement that overwhelmed me. With that feeling, I spent my first night in a village, where the fire is the only light that defies the darkness and the sweet song of the bugs is the beautiful lullaby that accompanies you until you fall asleep, and the music that awakens you in the morning.

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In the jungle

I spend the days on a road in relatively good condition but the distances between villages are becoming bigger. I have green walls around me and organic music in my ears. The vapour and the humidity impregnate my body and soon I dress in the soil that paints my body red. I am alone where "alone" means the absence of humans. You are never alone in the jungle, I feel close the millions of creatures that accompany me. I do not have enough senses to capture so much beauty around me.

Almost as if I had carefully calculated it beforehand, I arrive at the Equator when my bicycle computer reaches 40,000 km counting from the day I started this trip on November 30, 2012, in China. I stop for a moment there and I turn my neck back 90 degrees to be able to find the sky. I try to visualize in reality that imaginary line it now once again above me. How many times have I crossed it already? I have crossed it more than 5 times on this trip and I get tickled in the stomach to see me here playing whimsically this beautiful game of jumping from one to another hemisphere of the planet. The world is my garden and here I am to play.

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The jungle wraps around me sharply as I jump into the garden of the northern hemisphere. Now the plants caress me, protect me from the sun and on these sultry days, they send me puffs of fresh air from time to time when I need them most. The eternal climbs and the laborious descents begin. The sweat soaks my skin, and my muscles, angry, begin to complain. The ground has not changed colour but it is no longer the same; the holes and corrugations shake me and the mud destabilizes me.

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If the desert is the solitude, the jungle is the company. if the desert is the apparent death, the jungle is the life that cannot be silent; if the desert is the void, the jungle is the fullness. If the desert is the absence, the forest is the presence. The jungle lives; the jungle is the lips that speak to you, the mouth that breathes on your neck, the hands that caress you. Its arteries carve the thick patches of interweaving bushes forever. They carry the blood flow that keeps this organism vibrating and alive.

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After hours of cycling in this tropical steam pot, when you feel that the humidity is about to make you implode, finding the rivers is like discovering the promised treasure at the end of the rainbow. I plunge in them to remove the mud stuck on my skin, the soil that makes me red and the most fearsome odours that my body is capable of producing. In them I submerge, again and again, splashing like a child. Each dive is being reborn, it is baptism, it is a ritual. I allow myself for a while to enjoy the fleeting fragrance of the soap on my skin because I know it will disappear as soon as I jump back on the bicycle and cycle away from the river once again. I drink from these crystalline waters, they recompose my muscles and give me back the energy I need to move on.

 I'm not alone here. If these rivers are important to me, they are much more important to the inhabitants of the jungle, who live in harmony with them. At the shores I always find people collecting water, bathing, washing dishes, clothes, children playing. They do not understand what anyone on a bicycle does here, but they have a lot of fun talking to me, and they are happy to show me where the different sectors for bathing, playing or washing things are.

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A few hundred meters in the surroundings, in the jungle clearings, are the villages, rudimentary but full of life. Adults coming and going, talking by the doors of their houses, cooking, laughing at the daily gossips. Having no lectricity they are free of television, connected to each other and not disconnected by electronic devices. It is a world without plastic toys Made in China, but children, obstinate in continuing to have fun, displaying their greatest creativity by inventing and building their own toys. They stroll through the dirt streets of their village, proud of their trucks made of wood, cans, wires, stones. They race with them, compete between neighbours and then return home to redesign and improve them.

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It is September, and I meet several young boys along the way, wandering semi-naked through the villages. It is impossible not to perceive the discomfort on their faces. It is not the lack of clothes but the waiting of the moment for which they are preparing. As I had seen with the Bukusu in Kenya, a year ago, it is time for circumcision, the instance of their lives in which they leave the adolescence to take the final step into adulthood. In order to become men, they will be circumcised in public, without anaesthesia or precision instruments, and they must avoid any manifestation of pain at any cost. No frowns, no flinches or teeth clenching, let alone tears.

It takes me several hours of the day crossing nothing but pure jungle to cover the distance between villages. It is very difficult physically and the fatigue accumulates throughout the days, but I go without problems in this beautiful garden in which I am. The monkeys watch me from the heights and beat the branches in the canopy as they jump from one to the other. Snakes slither smoothly passing from one side to the other. They remain elusive and do not want to have anything to do with me. Scorpions do not like me and they stay on guard under the weeds when they know I'm around. From time to time, a red duiker jumps scared out of nowhere crossing to the other side of the road when it hears me arrive. But I have friends who are not frightened; at times I am surrounded by dozens of turquoise butterflies fluttering around me, who decide to accompany me by dozens of meters. Some of them, the daring ones, lie in my arms and I try not to make too sudden movements not to frighten them. I feel like I'm in a fairy tale, a fantasy world.

I have all this fauna around me and I never get tired of surprises, it is one after another until I sadly realise that not all of them are good. Between villages and rivers I spend the whole day simply enjoying the full intensity of life. However, I discover that I am not entirely alone when two men with shotguns come out of the bushes in front of me. One of them wears a monkey as though it's a Louis Vuitton purse, with the tail coiled around his neck to serve as strap. I ask him what he will do with it, and he responds that it is meat to sell in the village. He tells me that for a monkey like that one, he can charge up to about 5000 CFA (~ 8 dollars). Only the wealthiest or several villagers together can afford it.

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Sometime later, I run into a boy of about 14 years of age carrying one of those wonderful red duikers that had jumped frightened in front of me as it heard me arrive. Now I understand more clearly the reason for their fear. He caught him with a homemade snare he made himself and then killed him with his knife. Now he has to walk 14km to get back home and sell it. He has it tied up by his legs hanging like a backpack on his back. I can not help but feel bad to see them, but at the same time, it is impossible not to understand the reasons. Jungle animals are the only source of protein around here, people depend on them. They are the only food outside the ubiquitous manioc which is nothing but pure tasteless carbohydrate. However, the greatest danger is not the hunting itself, but the lack of control over the use of firearms. As a matter of necessity, more and more men are becoming poachers and hunting with weapons is easier and faster than with snares. This contributes to decimate wildlife much faster and without limits, thus putting a lot of pressure on the stability of the ecosystem.

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It takes me two weeks to reach Makokou, the small and yet biggest city in northern Gabon. There the sealed road comes all the way from Libreville but disappears in the direction in which I'm heading. Before entering the city I cross the magnificent river Ivindo and I am watching a solitary boatman peacefully navigating the river. Seeing him, I remember the teachings of the boatman that Siddhartha find along his search for enlightenment. I look at him and the river and also reflect for a few minutes on the extraordinary reality of the phrase by Heraclitus of Ephesus: "No one bathes twice in the same river." Life is constant alterity and I celebrate coming down to the shore and take yet another bath there before entering the city.

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I did not think I was so tired until I had to climb the last hill before descending to the last bridge. From above I see the Ivindo meandering on each side of the city, and beyond, more and more and more jungle dissolving indefinitely on the horizon. I get excited just to see it and this is just beginning. I go directly to look for the Catholic church where Father François lets me mount the mosquito net in the gallery the church's shed. I need to rest one day at least to recover a little energy and find a welder for Dharma (my bicycle) which came to Makokou with a serious problem. I have to get everything back in good shape, because from now on days will get exponentially harder if I finally find the way I'm looking for.

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