I spent the last months crossing the jungle sorting out one obstacle after another and exposing myself to one beating after another, until getting to the heart of it. In the whole journey I had risked my life more times than I prefer to remember and I was even beaten by a corrupt Congolese immigration officer. Now I had to get out of there and make it out in the best and fastest possible way because, after months of being malnourished and making continuous efforts pushing my limits, I have been running for a long time on emergency energies. I can feel it in the growing weakness of my body, in the infections of the wounds in my legs that never heal and in my imminent loss of weight. I know I need to stop to recover but for that, I also need a good place, even though that place would not arrive for a long time yet.
The little black one from Cameroon
I had two options to get to Cameroon. One was to continue upriver across the Central African Republic to Berbérati and the other was to go south to cross to Libongo. Despite being advised against it, I decided to opt for the first in order to get to know more the C.A.R but I had not even cycled 50 km when before reaching Nola, things got murky. A group of teenagers from the Christian Anti-Balaka militia ran into me, armed with Kalshnikovs Ak-47 and forced me to stop. They did not attack me nor forbade me to continue, but after a brief uncomfortable exchange with them, my instinct told me that it would clearly be better to go back and enter Cameroon directly through Libongo.
During the rest of the morning and beginning of the afternoon, I continued through the jungle backtracking down a narrow mud path surrounded by magnificent trees full of life. Along the way, I passed through more settlements of Bayaka pygmies and Bantu, who told me how to find the wooden shack on the banks of the Sangha that serves as an immigration post. It was the same shithole I had reached by boat with Andrea, and like at that time, 3 weeks ago, the lazy policemen and soldiers were still semi-drunk lying under the shade of the trees in the stifling tropical heat. Despite their drunkenness, they remembered me perfectly and decided not to bother me asking for bribes.
The next challenge now was to negotiate with a rafter to get me across to the other side of the Sangha in a canoe. In long-forgotten places of the world where tourists, let alone white men, never show up, these border points are the classic place for the prosperity of some opportunists. -25000 CFA - (~ 50US $) says one of them mockingly, encouraged by his cronies, believing that today he had won the lottery. I, with all the serenity in the world, and with almost two years of dealing with these not-so-good things about Africa, responded with a good sense of humour: -Oh yeah? Well, I think I'm going to swim carrying my bicycle on my back before I pay you that. Look, the local people pay 1000 CFA (~ 2US $), I do not expect to pay you the same because I carry my bike and I'll pay you what's fair, so I offer you 2500 CFA, which is more than double the rate that I know you charge to all those who are not white. Shall we leave now, is that ok?
As expected, he refused bluntly trying to justify the totally irrational rate with an endless list of lies. I did not worry because these very common situations require two things: patience and good humour and today, I feel particularly gifted with both. Instead of fighting and indignantly taking this as something personal, I began to chat with them about other things, of which we all laughed, and every so often, we'd go back to the issue of the price. After about 40 minutes and now with more people getting ready to cross, I decided to sit on the banks of the river as if nothing happened. Finally, the rafter and his friends approached me and went - Come on, let's go. 2500? - I repeated to confirm - "Oui, aller aller" (Yes, let's go let's go) - They answered and we were all smiling. Beautiful African life.
30 minutes later, I finally disembarked in Cameroon after having once again crossed the magnificent Sangha River. It was to be expected that I would need another 30 minutes spinning around, dragging the bicycle from one side to the other until I could find the immigration shack in this distant forgotten town. It was also to be expected that I would need to wait another 30 minutes until the policeman in charge, who was surely hanging out in a bar with his buddies, arrived to stamp my passport, and it was equally to be expected that I needed another 30 minutes until he convinced himself that I was not going to pay him a penny of the bribe he expected. Unlike the hell I had gone through in Congo a month ago, this officer was smiling and very friendly and everything evolved in good terms, as it was almost always the case. An hour and a half later since I had disembarked, I found myself with my passport stamped, under a scorching sun, exhausted and without enough motivation to start cycling.
I looked around and was in Cameroon, a country that, because of these unusual things, was present in my life since I was very little. I would be about 4 or 5 years old when my dad came back from work one day with a gift for me. It was a stuffed dummy called "Negrito de Camerún" (The little black one from Cameroon), a character created by the famous Argentine cartoonist Carlos Loiseau, better known as Caloi. I adored my little black one from Cameroon. I had him with me all day and for many years I slept hugging him. It was certainly difficult for me to imagine at that time what the country of Cameroon would look like, and much less that someday, a little more than 30 years later, I would enter it through this remote village and by bicycle.
Libongo is at the end of the world, but it is full of "little black ones from Cameroon". While here they do not have a bone tied to their heads like my stuffed dummy and they have arms, there is no internet or telephone signal here. There are more than 100 km through the jungle to get to the next settlement of people and it was too late for me to leave now. While I wandered aimlessly pondering my options around this town of dusty streets, blazing heat and mostly indifferent people, I saw a new pick-up coming in the opposite direction. A white man was driving it. It was Giorgio, the director of an Italian logging company that basically ensures the existence of Libongo. Seeing my exhaustion and my face, filthy black, blacker than that of the "The little black one from Cameroon", Giorgio sentenced without hesitating for a second - you come home and you stay as long as you want-. On the premises of the employees of the company, he gave me a whole house just for myself, with air conditioning and equipped with everything. I could not believe my fortune. I would spend the next 4 days there with him and his colleagues, eating Italian pasta as if there were no tomorrow, almost as a family. Bolognesa, pesto, scarparo, all the sauces, and I was not hallucinating.
During my stay in Libongo, Giorgio not only took me to visit the immense wood production factory of which he is the director, and from where it is exported to Italy, but he took me with him to supervise the different logging points within the jungle. There, groups of loggers live in camps away from everything for several consecutive days.
Honestly speaking, my predisposition to make these visits was not the best. The continuous scenes of deforestation that I had been seeing in recent months from Gabon and through the Congo, tore my soul apart. Every time a truck loaded with logs passed in front of me, taking the fragments that have been ripped from this magnificent millenary creation of nature, I felt the profound impotence of those who want to change the world but can not.
However, in this case, I was able to be more receptive because I had long talks with Giorgio about it. In them, he put a great dedication to explain to me in detail all the processes that make his company practice sustainable, unlike those of the Chinese predatory companies active in the region that destroy everything in their path without respecting the regeneration cycles. If not, I think I could not bear to see with my own eyes, how the loggers would bring down in just 15 minutes, one after another tree between 85 to 120 years of life. But even so, it was hard for me to keep watching and not to feel my heart squeeze when I heard the shrill sound of the chainsaws followed by the rumble of every brutal fall.
I stayed 4 days ving in the house that Giorgio gave me. I rested and ate as much as I could to recover my energy, but I am aware that I need more time because nothing is enough at this point after so many weeks in deficit. However, I must go ahead and leave the jungle. My health is deteriorating fast and I have been unable to communicate for weeks with my family, whom I miss a lot already. Just today I was able to notify them of my existence thanks to Giorgio's satellite internet connection, which, despite its extreme slowness, allowed me to send a 6-words-email after 3 days of trying it. It read: "I am alive. I am fine". I still have a long and hard road ahead of me. The information I receive first-hand from Giorgio and his colleagues is demoralising. They tell me that the 280 km to Yokadouma, the first big town, are in very bad condition because it has rained a lot, but I do not have time to PRE-occupy my mind. It is time to move forward and face what comes my way one step at a time.