Yaoundé, Cameroon * January 4, 2009
My friend Joe Ortega, the San Francisco adventure motorcyclist with whom I’d ridden in Peru and Bolivia and Chile in 2005, put it well. “The most important piece of gear you can bring on an adventure ride,” Joe would often say, “is a sense of humor.”
How true it was. A sense of humor and unflagging optimism is every bit as essential as chain lube and motor oil for an adventure ride through Third World countries. The ride will inevitably challenge your resourcefulness, patience, ingenuity, and tenacity. To get through, a sense of humor is crucial – perhaps more so in Africa than anywhere else on the planet.
Tires and motorcycle parts are virtually impossible to find. Visas are required for most African nations, and securing them from a consulate in the neighboring country is often tedious, time-consuming, and costly. Border crossings can take hours. Interminable delays and misinformation are routine. Fuel stations are closed; gasoline from black-market peddlers can be dirty and expensive.
Things are broken. Things are missing. Things are closed, inexplicably. Cultural and language barriers complicate, often comically, a request for an item as simple as salt. ATMs may be found only in the largest cities. Money-changers will try to prey on your ignorance and shortchange you in a transaction.
Your arithmetic skills and mental dexterity are constantly tested in calculating exchange rates for a merry-go-round of African currencies, the dirham and the ougiya and the dalasi and the cedi and the naira and the Congolese franc and the West African CFA and Central African CFA and the kwanza and the rand.
The results are often distressing, because Africa can be punishingly expensive. With little manufacturing and heavy reliance on imported goods, prices for some items can be 25 to 50 percent or more of what you might pay in the U.S. In Accra, Ghana, for instance, Geoff and I were shocked to find that a motorcycle dealer wanted more than $35 USD for an ordinary can of chain lube.
Police and other authorities can hold you up as they procure such important pieces of information as the names of your aunts and uncles, the ages of your siblings, and how much you paid for your passport. Attempts at extortion and bribes are not uncommon. Africa is nothing like the Western world that you know so well.
Africa is cockeyed and crazy, haphazard and improvisational. When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, Africa travel vets sigh a well-worn acronym: T.I.A. … This is Africa.
You have to view the glass, or your fuel tank, as half-full. You have to laugh. The Africans do – the continent is full of risible people just bursting for a good laugh. Most dilemmas can be solved with more time, more money, or some brainstorm of an idea. You can learn from the Africans, who are famously resourceful and inventive. Africa is the land of the possible.
It’s one of the reasons you came here in the first place, to test your wits. Riding a motorbike through the Third World teaches you what is truly essential. It demands you think outside the box. And when you think you’re stuck, you find yourself asking, What’s the worst thing that could happen?
The worst thing that could have happened was that you didn’t come to Africa on a motorbike in the first place.
The capital of Cameroon, Yaoundé, sprawls atop green hills in the southwestern section of the Idaho-shaped country. More than 1 million people live here, many in the shantytowns far from the city center. Yaoundé’s is a modern-looking downtown, by African standards. The broad boulevards and lazy roundabouts and French-Colonial architecture betray the influence of Cameroon’s French colonizers.
But Yaoundé is decidedly African, too, densely packed with reckless traffic and tilting shacks and thatch huts and street vendors selling grilled fish and hard-boiled eggs and cell phone chargers and used shoes and AA batteries that are virtually guaranteed to be worthless. We would spend six days here – six admin days, in the adventure motorcycling lexicon.
Geoff and I made a five-hour ride on a paved road from Limbe to Yaoundé, where Migo was lodged at the city’s Catholic mission. Our ride would have been four hours, but Geoff’s rear tire went flat 15 miles from the capital. A flat motorcycle tire is never a pretty sight. At one glance, it communicates an hour’s delay and sweat and toil and cursing.
A nail or a piece of glass wasn’t the culprit this time. It was the valve stem. It had torn away; the tube was ruined. Geoff had been lucky the failure didn’t occur at speed, or he might have found himself eating some Cameroonian pavement. He had one rear spare tube, which had already been patched multiple times. “What is that, like four flats you’ve had now?” I asked.
“Something like ‘at,” he said. “Actually, I think I’ve lost track.”
As he got to work on the side of the road, he elaborated on the flat tire he had suffered in Nigeria a week ago while he was crossing the nation solo. It occurred late in the day outside a little town called Ore. Ever conscious of security, Geoff had squirreled the bike away as best he could off the side of the highway and got to work.
“No way!” I said.
“Pinched the bastard again!”
“Twice in the same tire change!” I said. “That’s like five pinches you’ve done, isn’t it? Tell you what dude, remind me to never let you repair a flat, if I get one. Actually, do you want me to do that one for you?”
In fact, I hadn’t suffered a flat, and would not throughout Africa. I would ride nearly 47,000 miles through Africa and Latin America and North America with just one flat … and that was in the first week of what would be 14 months of riding. It happened in Baja California, Mexico, when I was using a standard inner tube on the rear tire.
After the flat, I installed a heavy-duty 4 mm tube. They won’t prevent a nail puncture, but they would resist the valve stem tear that Geoff’s standard tube suffered. Rim locks helped, too, in preventing tire slippage and a valve steam tear.
As Geoff toiled alongside the road, some kids stopped by and happily took possession of Geoff’s ruined tube, no doubt to put it to some good use with African ingenuity.
We found Migo at the Catholic mission, and another rider reunion was under way. It was Thursday evening. Migo and Geoff hadn’t seen each other for three weeks. Migo’s right calf was badly burned. He’d touched it against his KTM’s hot exhaust while riding around Yaoundé in ordinary pants.
We sat on an outdoor balcony at the mission while Geoff tended to Migo’s scalded leg with burn treatment from his amply stocked medic pack. Migo bit his lip in pain. We had a couple of boxes of red wine from a supermarket. Migo had a bottle of whiskey. We had plenty to talk about – namely the long list of admin chores and motorcycle maintenance that we each needed to tend to.
We needed visas for Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Neither was a sure thing, particularly DRC, and together they would cost more than $250. I needed to arrange shipment from the U.S. of a new rear tire and a new chain and sprockets to the DHL office in Brazzaville, Congo. Geoff was still working on shipment of a new rear shock and piston rings. His bike was slowly failing.
For weeks, it had been blowing great plumes of blue smoke. It was burning oil, and Geoff knew why. Somewhere in northern Africa – he couldn’t remember where – he had installed a new air filter. But he had discovered to his consternation that he had misinstalled the filter. The air cleaner element hadn’t been filtering at all, and for thousands of miles dust and sand had been sucking into his Yamaha’s 600 cc motor.
It wasn’t good. An air filter is among the most critical parts on a motorbike. My Suzuki manual warns: “The surest way to accelerate engine wear is to use the engine without the air filter element or to use a ruptured element. Make sure that the air cleaner is in good condition at all times. Life of the engine depends largely on this component!”
There are no Yamaha dealers in western or central Africa. New parts would need to be shipped via DHL from Europe, and not inexpensively. Migo had already had five DHL shipments, to Senegal, Togo, and elsewhere. We got to work on our many projects on Friday morning, starting at the Gabon consulate.
The consulate wasn’t easy to find. The map of Yaoundé in our Lonely Planet books was incomplete, missing a number of small streets. We maneuvered through heavy and reckless traffic towards the general neighborhood. I lost my friends, and after 15 minutes of hunting around and asking locals, finally found the consulate.
“It’s 45,000 CFA for a two-day turnaround, meaning we get the visas on Monday,” Migo said. That was three days away. “Or we can pay 70,000 CFA and have them back today. We’re thinking go with the 70,000 and we can get out of Yaoundé like Sunday.”
Seventy-thousand CFA! That’s more than $150 USD, and the highest visa fee we would pay in Africa. We filled out application forms, turned over our passports and a fistful of cash, and were told to return at 3 p.m. in the afternoon.
But once our visa applications were filed, we had second thoughts. We had ridden by the DRC consulate, and debated whether to file applications for DRC visas today, as well, even though the chances of securing a DRC visa in Yaoundé did not sound promising.
Migo had met German travelers in a 4x4 who had applied in Yaoundé and were denied. Another motorcyclist, Alex Rubstov of Russia, who was a few weeks ahead of us, was similarly rejected. Still, our luck might be better. You want to get visas when and where you can, because they are never a sure thing.
A civil war was raging in northeastern DRC. We would steer clear of that section of the country, but if the rebel uprising spread, DRC might stop issuing visas entirely. If we didn’t get DRC visa in Yaoundé, we’d need to divert course to Libreville, the capital of Gabon, or hope for the best in Brazzaville, across the Congo River from the DRC capital of Kinshasa.
We stopped at the DRC consulate to inquire. A friendly young man behind the counter encouraged us to apply. The chief is out today, he said, but would decide on Monday. The fee would be 45,000 CFA, about $100 USD. Ten dollars of the fee would be non-refundable, in the event we were rejected.
I slipped an Obama sticker inside my passport, for what little good it might be in our applications. “Please make sure the chief receives this,” I told the desk guy. “A small present for the chief.”
“Obama!” the young man exclaimed. “You have a sticker for me, too?”
We lingered briefly outside the DRC consulate. I happened to look at the rear tire on Migo’s KTM. The tire was inflated, but a nail was deeply embedded in the rubber.
It was lunchtime. We stopped at a small café. Chickens were roasting on a rotisserie out front. Geoff ordered a whole chicken. Migo bought pastries from the café. To me, pastries didn’t sound good and the chickens looked unappetizing, as if they had been spent the night in that grill. Across the street a cart vendor was selling sandwiches filled with egg, rice, and pasta. I bought one of those.
“Where did you get that?” Geoff said, with a covetous look.
“Lady across the street,” I replied.
“I should have got one of those,” Geoff said, “because this chicken is shit.” His lunch turned out to be the dreaded “hard chicken.” As we had learned, two sorts of chicken exist in Africa – soft chicken and hard chicken. Hard chicken is as tough as a catcher’s mitt. It’s impossible to tell the difference before your first bite.
“Yeah well, the sandwich lady didn’t have any salt,” I said. “This sucks without salt.” I carry a salt shaker in my tankbag, but had left the tank bag at the Catholic mission for our morning errands. I ate a dismally bland sandwich while Geoff poked with hostility at his dead bird.
Across the street was an Internet café. After lunch, I checked my email and spotted this alarming subject header:
DHL shipping estimate $1062
It was an email from my lifelong friend Tappy “Do-Right” Tapintyre. Tappy had generously agreed to tend to certain of my affairs, and was in possession of a new TKC 80 rear tire and a new chain and set of sprockets. My idea was that he could simply visit the DHL office a mile or two from his house in our hometown in upstate New York and ship them to Brazzaville. It wouldn’t take him more than an hour.
(BTW, I’ll take this opportunity to say a big THANK YOU to Tappy Tapintyre as well as a friend in San Francisco, Elaine Brotherton. Both went out of their way to help handle my affairs while I was in Africa, as well as supply other assistance while I was in the U.S. Many thanks, guys!)
Each of Migo’s five DHL shipments to Africa had cost a couple of hundred dollars -- not cheap, but reasonable enough. I figured my expense for a shipment from the U.S. would be more, but not that much. But now Tappy informed me that DHL had curtailed its international business from the U.S. and that my shipment would cost $1062 USD. An estimate he procured from UPS was even more -- $1200 USD.
More than $1,000 USD! It was shockingly expensive. I emailed Tappy to hold off while I researched a less expensive alternative. Migo reminded me that Toni Togo, the KTM motorbike dealer in Togo, regularly shipped tires to Point Noire in the Congo. I had met the English-speaking manager, named Michel. I had seen 17-inch tires in stock at Toni Togo. I would try Toni Togo.
Back at the Catholic mission, I jotted some tire-buying notes. I copied the phone number from Toni Togo sticker than I had affixed to my motorbike. A call center was just across the street. I took a deep breath. This will be easy, I told myself. Go across the street, call Michel, order tires for shipment to the DHL office in Point Noire, pay with credit card, done. Twenty minutes.
The call center handled only calls inside Cameroon, a girl told me. A few hundreds yards down the street was an Internet café from which I could call Togo. I hied myself down the street and dialed Toni Togo.
I received only error messages. Something was wrong. I asked an attendant for help. He verified the country code and dialed the number, unsuccessfully. I kept trying. The little phone both was broiling hot. Sweat poured down my face. Dammit! I thought. This is going to be a freaking nightmare!
I thought to check the Toni Togo Web site for a different phone number. I logged on to a PC at the café. The French keyboard was badly stuck, in need of a thorough cleaning. The machine was painfully sluggish. After 15 minutes, Toni Togo’s Web page finally loaded. Then the browser crashed, and the PC itself, and my aggravation grew. OK bub, I told myself. Sense of humor. Patience. This is Africa. This is funny.
After more than a half-hour, I finally loaded the contact page at Toni Togo’s Web site. The number listed there differed by one digit from the number on the Toni Togo sticker on my Suzuki. Oh for Pete’s sake, I thought, there’s a typo on the bumper sticker!
I tried the new number and, incredibly enough, reached Michel on his cell phone. The connection was horrible. We could barely hear each other. Michel sounded distracted and unhelpful. Send me an email, he said brusquely. Now I was concerned about timing. If he didn’t check email until Monday, it would mean a delay in shipment and days of waiting.
Michel was insistent: Send me an email. Will you check it today? I asked. Yes, yes, he said, anxious to get off the phone. I sent him an email and hustled back to the Catholic Mission. It was nearly 3 p.m., and time to pick up our Gabon visas. Geoff and Migo were in the parking lot.
“Well that sucked,” I told them. “Before I went off, I said to myself, ‘There’s a call center right across the street. This will be easy.’ Bah! There was a freaking typo in the phone number on that Toni Togo bumper sticker! Finally I reached that Michel dude, and we couldn’t hear each other and he sounded busy anyhow. I sent him an email and will have to hope for the best.”
Once again I regarded the condition of my rear tire. The knobbies had grown distressingly thin. It would barely last until Brazzaville.
Geoff shook his head. He had problems of his own. He had tried to change his chain and sprockets, but discovered he needed a different fastening plate for his front sprocket. Without it, the replacement parts he’d lugged along for thousands of miles were useless.
We left our various issues in mid-air and rode, Migo carefully on account of the nail in his rear tire, back to the Gabon consulate, where, remarkably, our visas were ready as promised.
There’s a beat and a rhythm in Yaoundé and all throughout urban Africa. It’s intoxicating. It’s especially pronounced at night. It’s noisy and colorful and completely alien to the Western experience. Music pounds from cheap Chinese speakers; much of Africa has an appetite for music played at insanely loud volumes.
Kerosene lanterns or wood fires provide illumination. People jostle and holler and laugh and gossip, attired in colorful garb. The urban evening air is full of the aroma of fish and chicken and beef and innards roasting on streetside grills, or peanuts being cooked in an old hubcap, blended with exhaust fumes. Amid the carnival-like nocturnal revelry, the sight of a white person in a city like Yaoundé often elicits hoots and laughter from the locals, and giggles from the girls, all in good fun.
Cars and trucks and little motos honk and weave among pedestrians, who stride confidently around gaping holes in the pavement. Walking about urban Africa is a skill, perhaps a second sense that one acquires in youth. There are always holes in the pavement. For the Western visitor, it’s like playing high-stakes hopscotch. One misstep or moment’s inattention can result in a busted kneecap or snapped ankle. Migo, luckily, suffered only a sore ankle and a bruised shin.
It was night. Migo and I were walking through Lome, Togo, en route to a street vendor that sold what I called expired mayonnaise salad. Migo was a step ahead of me, and I watched in horror as his right leg suddenly plunged straight down. In a moment, he was collapsed up to his waist in an open manhole in the sidewalk, and now he groaned in pain.
Someone had evidently stolen the manhole’s metal cover. Migo’s lanky body was badly contorted, his left leg splayed across the sidewalk. It looked bad. Ironically, earlier that day, we had visited a voodoo market, and Migo had bought a fetish charm meant to ensure safe travels. The seller had provided elaborate instructions to “activate” the charm, but Migo had not yet done so.
I squatted with him, thinking the worst – broken tibia, smashed kneecap, and Geoff, our medic, out of town – and said, “Dammit, Migo! Why didn’t you activate that voodoo charm before we went out tonight?!”
He laughed. His leg was sore, but he was all right. I helped to hoist him from the hole.
Now in Yaoundé, we three walked at night around more gaping holes. “Hole!” we would occasionally announce to one another. The main drag from the Catholic mission in Yaoundé had an ample selection of bars and restaurants. Beer, thankfully, is one item that is cheaply priced. A large bottle can be had for a little more than $1 USD. In even the smallest towns, you can usually find a shack in which a handful of men sit drinking generous 1.5 liter bottles of strong beer.
The electric-light name of one place caught our attention. It was called Times Squares, with a humorous pluralization of the latter word. We sat for a beer, and Geoff, appropriately given the name of the establishment, bought a cheap Chinese watch from a peripatetic salesman. It lasted a couple of weeks.
I relished the evenings in Yaoundé. Despite its French design, Yaoundé struck me at quintessentially African. Of all the cities I visited, I felt the pulse of Africa perhaps most acutely in Yaoundé. I took time to study the faces of the people and the urban surroundings. It was exotic and electric.
Too, I relished sitting around with my friends at night, swapping adventure riding tales and laughing and bitching and brainstorming. We made a good trio. The dynamic was strong. We had had unforgettable adventures. We had the appetite for more. Remember this, I told myself. It won’t last forever.
No doubt about it, riding Africa was not easy. The challenges were manifold; every day was a misadventure. Before leaving, I had met a Horizons Unlimited member who goes by the name Pete from Berkeley; he cleverly called riding Africa “senior adventure motorcycling.”
The rewards, though, came in equal measure. As we sipped our beers at Times Squares, I told my friends, “You know, I think Africa has to be it – the toughest adventure motorcycling destination in the world. Especially the west side.”
“I’d say,” Geoff said. “Between the roads and the traffic and all the admin bullshit we have to do, yeah. The east side, it’s easier – lot more tourists and decent paved roads.”
“Months ago,” I said, “I was debating whether to ride Africa, or Russia and Mongolia and the ‘Stans, then into the Himalayas. The scenery in Asia might have been better, but Africa – man. This has to be it. The ultimate adventure ride.”
We tended to stay in cheap motels. Rooms were typically shabby and amenities few. We took cold showers and warm beer. We developed a taste for inexpensive street food. No health and safety regulations govern the preparation of street food. You didn’t want to look too closely at the dirty pots and pans. You didn’t want to wonder how long a piece of meat had spent broiling in the afternoon heat.
You looked the other way, and enjoyed the food and the African experience. Now Migo wondered aloud whether we would have done anything differently if traveling on unlimited budgets.
“I don’t think so,” Migo said. “This is the way to travel, on a local level. Some of the crazy places we’ve stayed and where we’ve eaten, I wouldn’t change that for the world. Hanging with the locals is a much richer experience than staying in a five-star hotel, if there even was one.”
In Yaoundé, Geoff professed a change of heart. When we started out in Morocco three months ago, the inconveniences and aggravations of riding Africa got under his skin. I found it odd, because he had traveled through or worked in Sierra Leone and Kenya and India and Iraq and Bolivia, among other countries. He, perhaps better than most, should know what to expect. Yet frequently he bitched.
“Well, it’s all part of the challenge – all good fun,” I told him back then. “All part of adventure riding. My buddy Joe in San Francisco would often say the most important piece of gear you can bring is a sense of humor. If everything was easy and all the roads were good, it would be like riding the U.S. or Europe, and what fun is that?
“Another thing Joe would say,” I added, “is that greatest thing he learned on his South America ride was sense of empathy. He wasn’t especially empathetic before, but he came to appreciate the people and life in the Third World. Y’know, Joe was an ex-Marine – sort of a military mindset like yours.”
I had hoped that Geoff would experience a similar transformation. And indeed, during his Christmas hiatus to the U.K., Geoff had time to reflect on our African adventures. His view had changed.
“It took me a while to get over my military perspective,” he said. “When I started out, it was just the raw challenge of it – just getting from A to B. Thinking like a soldier. Now I’ve learned to chill out and let the trip unfold. I’ve told myself I need to give Africans a chance and be open-minded.”
Or at least laugh along with the Africans. There was plenty of opportunity to do that. From Times Squares, we made our way to a restaurant called Le Globus. With a third-story view of a busy and colorful roundabout, the eatery was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide as offering Cameroonian dishes “and a few trusty standards, like chicken with rice.”
I ordered the chicken with rice.
“Le riz c’est fini,” our portly waitress told me. The rice is finished.
“What do you mean, the rice is finished?” I tried to ask in bad French. “You’re a restaurant, how can you run out of rice?”
But she was insistent. There was no rice. I ordered chicken with peas but no rice, and laughed in exasperation. Geoff and Migo shook their heads and chuckled, too. How typically African! But it nagged at me. I love rice. I was hungry. I had been looking forward to a large, steaming carbohydrate plate. I decided to have some fun with the staff, and made my way from our outdoor patio seats into the restaurant.
Throughout Africa, I would amuse myself by speaking in English to people who couldn’t understand what I was saying. I had great fun telling someone with a wry smile and upbeat demeanor, “You know, this chicken really sucked. Did it die of starvation?” I would laugh and my new friend would laugh, oblivious to what I had said.
At Le Globus, I launched into English with a mischievous manner. “You’re a restaurant. It’s 8 p.m. on a Saturday night,” I told two girls. “How can you run out of a staple item like rice? If you’re out, there’s a market right down the street – go buy some! For Pete’s sake, I was really looking forward to a nice plate of rice.”
“Oh, we have rice,” he said. “But it’s not cooked. What you like us to cook it? It’s going to take 10 or 15 minutes.”
I laughed out loud. Ten or 15 minutes! If that were true, it would be one of the fastest meals prepared in Africa, where a simple cup of coffee could take 30 minutes, an omelette well over an hour. Sure enough, in about 15 minutes I had a generous plate of chicken and rice. On the table was a jar of hot pimante sauce.
I had found terrific homemade sauces throughout Africa – pimante, as the locals called them. They consisted of oil and ground chili peppers and were not commercially packaged, but rather made locally, I think by evil witchdoctors. As a hot-sauce lover, I was in my element. Geoff, with his delicate British palate, would say, “I don’t know how you can eat that stuff. Bah!”
The pimante at Le Globus was by far the hottest hot sauce I would encounter – maybe just a few degrees short of the San Francisco-made Dave’s Insanity Sauce on the Scoville scale of pepper piquancy, for you hot sauce connoisseurs. I liberally and masochistically anointed my meal with the fiendish oil.
My mouth was aflame, my tongue numb, and my eyes damp with tears. I rocked back theatrically in my chair and groaned in delicious pain before taking another forkful. The waitress, chuckling at the spectacle, stopped by to inquire whether I was all right, probably thinking I’d gotten my comeuppance for being a pain in the ass.
“C’est bonne,” I managed to choke, dabbing the tears from my eyes. “Tres bonne! Tres chaud! Tres fort! Delicieux!”
Migo extracted the nail from the rear tire of his KTM with a pair of pliers. The air escaped in a whoosh. Down the street, we had spotted a tire-changing guy. It was Saturday morning. Migo carried his tire a few hundred yards down the street from the Catholic mission and the tire-changing guy got to work.
The tire-changing guy wore sandals. Using only his feet, he broke the bead on Migo’s TKC 80 in minutes. Any of us three would have labored over the job, resorting perhaps to the sidestand on a motorbike to break the bead. The man worked with frightening efficiency.
He extracted the tube, patched it, and reinstalled tube and tire on rim, wielding a pair of crude tire irons with the skill of a sushi chef. The work took perhaps 15 minutes. Migo watched in amazement.
“It’s absolutely incredible!” Migo remarked. “He breaks the bead with his feet, and then it’s like, voom voom voom. It’s done. Just amazing! That would have taken me at least an hour.”
As we stood around with the tire-changing guy, a man on a Yamaha Tenere pulled up. His large motorbike, like mine, uses a 17-inch rear tire. A used rear tire was slung over his pillion. He was here for a tire change. His replacement didn’t have a lot of tread left, but would be preferable to the completely bare rear tire he was now running.
Still grappling with the dilemma of how to procure a rear tire, I asked the guy if he knew anyone in town who had for sale a new 17-inch tire – pneu, in the French.
“Oui, oui!” he replied. “Beaucoup nouveau! Beaucoup pneus!”
Like so many Africans, Louis was delighted to help. He was in his early 30s and, once he learned that was an American, told me he worked at the American embassy. I was dubious. Clever men throughout Africa and elsewhere will often fix on some detail you offer and claim a connection as a means of ingratiating themselves with you, ultimately with the idea of pocketing a little payout.
Oh, my cousin lives in San Francisco! Oh, I ride a motorcycle around my country just like you!
Still, Louis was decently attired and rode an expensive motorcycle. He spoke no English, which I thought odd for working at the American embassy, but decided to take him up on his offer to lead me to a shop that sells new 17-inch rear tires.
“Only a new tire,” I emphasized in bad French. “New – not an old tire like you have there. It needs to last 10,000 kilometers.” No probleme! Louis exclaimed.
I retrieved my bike from the Catholic mission and followed Louis and a passenger, the maintenance man at the mission, on a three-mile ride to an industrial neighborhood. We stopped in front of the shop of another tire-changing guy. A few old, badly used tires for large-cylinder motorcycles lay about the front yard. Louis spoke to the owner in French, and the man retreated into his shop.
The man returned and presented me with a once-knobby motocross tire that appeared to date to the Nixon administration. Its rubber was dangerously cracked, its tread as bare as a dinner plate. “No, a new tire,” I said. The owner huffed and looked at me as if I was in idiot.
No probleme! Louis exclaimed. I know another place! I pursed my lips and rolled my eyes. Sure you do, pal.
Off we went. Ridiculously dense traffic was in a virtual deadlock. We spent 20 minutes inching between trucks and cars and among little motos, complicated by steep ascents up Yaoundé’s hills, until hitting stretches in which the streets were broad enough to enable us to weave through traffic in second gear. Louis raced ahead, showing off his urban riding skills, disregarding my request that he take it easy.
Then traffic would densify again, and we’d be at a standstill. I got stuck behind a bus that blew the blackest, most noxious diesel exhaust, ever. I gagged inside my helmet, and desperately negotiated to the side of the truck, where a lady street vendor shoved a bucketful of hard-boiled eggs in my face and strongly suggested that I purchase one.
How in God’s name, I thought, do I get myself into these situations? I had no choice but to laugh.
Unsurprisingly, the second tire guy didn’t have new tires, and nor did a third to whom Louis led me on our snipe hunt. He seemed nonplussed by our failure. I know where to go! he insisted. We headed towards a neighborhood full of repair and parts shops for the little Chinese motos so prevalent here.
Then Louis got a flat tire. Riding aggressively, he had gotten ahead of me by a block or two. He was pulling away gingerly as I rolled up, his flat rear comically deflated, presumably back to one of the tire-changing guys we had visited.
The mission’s maintenance man, who called himself Paulie, stood by the side of the road. He had disembarked from Louis’s motorbike and now hopped on the back of mine. We found the moto shop neighborhood, parked, and were immediately surrounded by a crowd of men.
With Paulie’s help on the French, I explained I wanted a new 17-inch rear tire. Men went scurrying off, inquiring among the many moto dealers for a new tire. If one of them located a tire, they knew a tip from the American motorcyclist would probably be forthcoming. I took a seat, chatted with the crowd, and let nature take its course.
Twenty minutes later, a man appeared with a new 17-inch rear tire. My spirits soared, and then sank as I examined the tire -- a cheap, Chinese brand called King’s Tire. Its diameter was indeed 17 inches, but it was far too narrow for the Suzuki’s rim. Its owner dismissed my concern. It will fill the rim once you inflate it, he told me.
Yeah bub, well maybe you’d run a cheap, narrow Chinese tire at 70 mph down a highway, but I won’t. Thanks anyhow.
Three hours after I set off on the tire hunt with Louis, I returned to the Catholic mission, dispirited. Geoff and Migo were wrenching on their motorbikes in the mission parking lot. “Three hours wasted, running around with this guy looking for a tire,” I told them. “The usual story – he knew guys with new tires. Yeah, right. Old, worn out motocross tires was all I found. Probably left behind by some adventure rider 10 years ago.”
Surely, I told myself, I would have better fortune with my next chore, to check in with Michel of Toni Togo on shipping at tire to the Congo. I pumped up my optimism and headed to an Internet café, but was not surprised to discover that Michel had not written back.
I sent Michel another email and called him again. Again, I could barely hear him. He sounded even more distracted than on our first call, and ended the call abruptly. I never heard from him again.
I scoured the Web for phone numbers of motorcycle dealers in South Africa. I reached on the phone a man at the Suzuki shop in Cape Town. He had a tire in stock, but I couldn’t pay with a credit card. He demanded a bank transfer, which I knew would be an ordeal unto itself. His South African accent was thick and barely intelligible. He kept interrupting me. The phone connection was awful.
I managed to get the dealer’s bank account number I would need for a bank transfer, and left it as a last resort. There had to be a better way. I tried calling other South African shops. No one answered the phone. One recording told me the shop closed at 3 p.m. It was 3:15 p.m.
Ah, screw it, I told myself. Shops were closing for day, and I was starving. I would start fresh on Monday morning. Up the street was a large, modern supermarket. They sold delicious egg sandwiches for a little more than $1 USD. I ate one in the parking lot, and found Geoff and Migo back at the mission.
“Well boys, my sense of optimism is not being rewarded,” I said. “I feel like Charlie Brown – you know the cartoon, where Lucy holds the football and then yanks it away right before Charlie Brown kicks it? That’s what it’s like trying to find a new tire in Africa.”
“That’s why I’m a pessimist,” Geoff said. “That way, I’m never disappointed.”
My room at the Catholic mission was quaintly monastic. I liked it. It cost $7 USD per night. It had a small, clean bed, a desk, a large bathroom, and a lamp fastened above the bed for reading, a small pleasure for which I was thankful. The mission grounds were pleasant and peaceful, with a large and handsomely landscaped backyard. Several nuns and priests and others lived here.
I felt at home in this atmosphere of religion and piety. It brought back fond memories. I had worked for four years in late high school and early college as the caretaker at the Catholic church in my hometown. I didn’t mind being awakened before dawn each morning by a choir of singing penitents, who assembled in the improvisational church beneath our second-floor rooms.
But Geoff did. He had tossed and turned this Sunday morning for more than an hour as the choir sang hymns in French, and now begrudgingly presented himself for breakfast, looking as if he had just played a rugby game. His demeanor in the morning could be inexplicably angry; Migo and I had chuckled over it time and again. As an agnostic, he found little charm in the morning church services.
I had been enjoying the morning, writing in my paper journal and partaking in the simple breakfast of bread and butter and jam and coffee that was laid out each day at 7 a.m. Geoff interrupted that, and then the construction started. It did at 8 a.m. every morning. Men were renovating a building. They used an old cement mixer, which rattled horrifically. The morning’s peace and quiet was shattered.
I retreated to my room to shave, but the water was off. It was every morning at the mission. I decided to make my way downtown and hunt for a 12-volt adapter to power my GPS. My adapter had failed back in Burkina Faso, evidently with an internal short. I didn’t really need a GPS as Migo had taken charge of navigation, but it did provide some entertainment. I missed it.
“Hey, before you take off, can I borrow that chain breaker you’ve got?” Geoff asked. Among his chores today was a second crack at his chain and sprocket problem. I handed it over to him reluctantly, with an uncanny sense that it would not be returned intact.
Hours upon hours of hunting for a 12-volt adapter in Ghana and Togo and Nigeria had proven fruitless. Entering Yaoundé, though, I had spied a number of electronics stores and street vendors selling gear for cell phones. It looked promising. I hiked 20 minutes downtown to a grid of streets packed with stores, only to find each one closed until Monday.
But the street vendors did not take Sunday off. Hundreds of them busily arrayed electronics gear and shoes and belts and books on sidewalk tables. I had brought my broken adapter with me, and presented it to dozens of electronics vendors. “J’cherche le meme,” I would say. I am searching for the same. They studied it curiously, and shook their heads no.
Almost every vendor had the corresponding, male part for a variety of cell phones. But none had the female part that one could plug, for instance, into a car’s cigarette lighter, or wire up to the battery on an adventure motorbike. These units can be found at any Wal-Mart or auto parts store in the Western world for $15 or so. In Africa, they seemed non-existent.
One man insisted he could have one for me tomorrow. Fine, I said, I’m at the Catholic mission. Bring it up there and I’ll pay you. He never showed up.
An impressive number of street vendors had books for sale. I browsed the selections. Nearly all of the books were in French, but I would occasionally spot an English-language textbook. A vendor eagerly approached me. I told him I was interested in English-language books. He pursed his lips, held up a finger, told me to wait, and went sprinting up the street.
When he didn’t return, I kept wandering. He found me a block or two away. He was out of breath from running, and with a winning smile held out for my perusal a tattered old Harlequin romance. “Anglais!” he declared.
On the cover, a scantily clad man and woman were portrayed in breathless embrace. I laughed and shook my head and told him thanks, but no. “Pour le poubelle,” I told him. For the trash.
I was hungry. I had seen just one restaurant open, and made my way there. It was a cafeteria style, but no food was arrayed, except for a lone piece of yesterday’s pie. I asked for a menu. There was no menu. There were no patrons, only two employees sitting idly about. I waved them off and headed back towards the Catholic mission. I could have another one of those tasty egg sandwiches from the supermarket across the street.
There were no egg sandwiches. The supermarket’s deli was closed for Sunday. Next door, though, was a restaurant at which I had an overpriced $8 hamburger with fries before returning to the mission, to find that Geoff had broken my chain breaker.
“I don’t know how it happened, mate,” he said apologetically. “I was just turning it and the pin snapped.”
A chain breaker is a critical tool for an adventure ride. The motorbike’s chain endures a great deal of stress and can be susceptible to failure. I had packed replacement master links and the chain breaker tool as a contingency. Geoff had neglected to bring a chain breaker, and had borrowed mine several times before prevailing on Migo to order one from Germany as part of a tire shipment via DHL.
The chain breaker Migo received, mystifyingly, seemed only designed to break the chain – not put it back together. We had spent hours riddling over the thing, turning it over every which way like a Rubik’s Cube. We were baffled. So I had the only chain breaker among us three, and now it was busted.
“I knew it – I knew it, I knew it, I knew you were going to break that thing!” I told Geoff. I wasn’t really mad at him, though I suspected his aggressive wrenching style had probably made him a chain breaker-breaker. My dismay over the loss of that tool could be fixed only by another tool -- that critical sense of humor.
I did owe Geoff one. On the his trip to the U.K., he had per my request bought me “The Poisonwood Bible,” a marvelous novel by Barbara Kingsolver about missionary family in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the late 1950s.
A good book is precious on a long adventure ride through the Third World. Absent TV or radio, a book spares you interminable boredom. But English-language books are nearly impossible to find in French-speaking western and central Africa, and even in the English-speaking nations of Ghana and Nigeria and sections of Cameroon.
By sheer luck, I had happened across a selection of used English-language paperbacks amid a hodgepodge of goods at a gas station in Calabar, Nigeria. Most were trash; the best of the sorry lot appeared to an 848-page American western called be “Power in the Blood” by an Australian-born novelist, Greg Mathews. The book turned out to be surprisingly good. I gave it to Migo once I was done; now he was as immersed in it as I had been.
Back in Bolivia in 2005, Joe Ortega found ourselves in a remote city called Oruro on a Sunday in January. An NFL playoff game was to be played that evening. Improbably, we found a bar with a TV that could broadcast the game, and had ourselves a ball watching the Steelers down the Patriots, 20-17.
Now it was another Sunday in January. An NFL playoff game between the Dolphins and Ravens would begin at 7 p.m. Yaoundé time. There’s a Hilton hotel downtown, I thought to myself. A five-star joint like the Hilton might have satellite reception. As Geoff and Migo didn’t care about American football, I made my way alone to the Hilton with high hopes of watching the game.
Le Panoramique bar was atop the Hilton, on the 11th floor. The view of the twinkling lights of Yaoundé would have been panoramic, but a harmattan-like glaze over the windows obscured the view. I stepped inside and was greeted by a friendly girl bartender and spotted a neon sign for a beer called Castle Milk Stout.
Ha! I thought. That’s the same beer we drank on the night we got stuck by rain back in little Bodom, Ghana! I hadn’t seen Castle Milk Stout advertised since. My memories of that evening in Bodom were fond. I thought it would be ironically appropriate to have a Castle Milk Stout at the five-star Hilton, juxtaposed against impoverished Bodom.
I ordered one, and the girl told me with profuse apology they no longer carried Castle Milk Stout. I ordered a Primus for the five-star price of $7 USD and inquired about satellite TV. The girl shrugged her shoulders. I sweet-talked my way into possession of the remote, and flipped through 30 or so channels.
Soccer. Soap operas. The news. No American football broadcast. The girl set in front of me one of my favorite snacks, a bowl of mixed olives.
Be thankful for small pleasures. I ate five bowls of olives. They were delicious.
We pulled up to the DRC consulate at 11 a.m. on Monday to check on our visa applications. They had been denied. With a wordless scowl, a woman behind a glass window returned our passports, and 40,000 of the 45,000 CFA we had paid for the privilege of applying. My Obama sticker was gone.
“Why?” I asked. “Do you know why they were rejected?” She shrugged, not bothering to look up.
From a visa perspective, Africa was exponentially more problematic than Latin America. There, only one of the 14 countries through which I had ridden, Brazil, required a visa. I applied at the Brazilian consulate in Buenos Aires and, with no fuss, had the visa stamp in my passport the next day.
In Africa, 10 of the 18 nations through which we traveled required visas. Only several were issued on demand at the border. In most cases, we would have to find the consulate, submit an application, and wait for a day or two. And most African nations also required a carnet de passage for our motorbikes. It’s effectively a bond document that discourages a motorist from selling his or her vehicle in a country.
I had put down a deposit of $6700 USD with the Canadian Automobile Association for my carnet. Most of that would be returned once my motorbike was back in the U.S. No country in Latin America requires a carnet. It was another bit of administrative toil that helped make Africa, well, Africa.
We left the DRC visa issue hanging, and would try again in the Congo. And once in DRC, we would have to confront the wild card – the elusive visa for Angola.
Visas for Angola are notoriously difficult to secure. The best we could hope for would be a “transit visa,” allowing just five days to ride nearly 1400 miles of bad Angolan roads. I had read with dismay about a pair of U.K. riders named Dan and Linz who, riding south towards Cape Town in 2007, were denied Angola visas. After weeks of attempts and rejection, they gave up and shipped their motorbikes back to England. (The only alternative route is through DRC, from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi, on a road so awful it takes a 4x4 more than a month to traverse 1,200 miles).
To complicate matters, Angola was said to demand a “letter of invitation” from a person or business in Angola. Months before I left, I had written to tour operators and hotels, saying that friends and I would be riding from Morocco to Cape Town and wished to pass through scenic Angola.
From dozens of emails, I received only one reply, from an outfit called Angola Adventure Safaris. From there, it took four months – four months! – of emailing my contact to actually secure the letter, which finally arrived via email in late November. It was inexplicable.
Now in Yaoundé, Migo took a close look at our letter of invitation on his laptop, and spotted a typo in one of our passport numbers. That’s exactly the sort of thing an uncooperative consulate or border official could seize on as a justification for denial. I’d had a similar experience in Nigeria, hassled twice by immigration officials because a border crossing guard had misprinted January 9, 2008 – not 2009 – as the expiration for my two-week Nigerian visa.
But we had been learning from the Africans. Things could be fixed. A software programmer, Migo had a picture-editing program on his computer. With some finesse, he corrected the passport number, not a simple task when dealing with a digital image, as our letter of invitation was.
Geoff, too, was finding that things could be fixed. He’d located an old metal worker in Yaoundé who crafted from scratch a new fastening plate that he needed to secure his front sprocket. And, he announced to me with great satisfaction, the guy had fashioned a replacement pin for my broken chain breaker.
“Lookit this,” he said, returning the tool to me. “It’s like good as new! This guy was amazing. He takes one look at it and says, ‘No problem.’ I tell ya, we can learn a few things from the Africans. The ingenuity is incredible.”
I had good news myself that Monday afternoon. After another hours-long hunt on the Internet and telephone for a South Africa moto dealer that could ship me a new tire, I connected with a capable parts manager named Shafiek Isaacs at BMW Motorrad in Cape Town. Yes, he had a new rear TKC 80 in stock. Yes, he could ship it to Brazzaville. Yes, I could pay with a credit card.
My relief was profound. The cost would be high – nearly $750, nearly $600 of that for DHL shipping to Brazzaville, Congo. Atop that, I knew I would have to pay a customs import fee. It was, though, less expensive than the $1062 shipping charge from the U.S.
Forsaking the shipment from the U.S., though, meant that I would not receive the new chain and sprockets that Tappy Tapintyre was prepared to ship. The chain and sprockets I had installed back in the U.S. would need to last some 14,000 miles through Africa. And it meant that I would have to do without several other goodies that Tappy had in his package – an LED key chain flashlight and thick, quality athletic socks, neither of which I had been able find in Africa.
Most disappointingly, I would not receive from Tappy the piece de resistance – an empty McDonald’s bag, empty Quarter Pounder with Cheese and Big Mac wrappers, and empty French fries and ketchup packages. I had been riding a long, lonely road in Ghana when the devilish idea occurred to me. I told Migo about it one night over beers in Nigeria.
“So we’ll have all these McDonald’s bags and wrappers,” I told Migo, suppressing my hilarity. “In some plausibly large city down in Congo or somewhere, you and I can set them out on a table at some hotel when Geoff is off doing something. He comes back and sees all that McDonald’s stuff and will say, ‘Omigod, McDonald’s! Where did you guys find that?!’”
Migo broke into laughter. I went on, “And we say, ‘Oh, just down the street …take a right, down a block, it’s on the corner.’ He’ll be humping all over, asking people, ‘Where’s the McDonald’s?’” We laughed and laughed.
There are no McDonald’s in Western or central Africa, nor other Western fast food outlets. After months on the road and countless meals of chicken and rice, mutton and peas, bread and bananas, one can develop a powerful craving for Western-style fast food.
Geoff had been bitten by the fast-food bug. Only a week earlier, he had taken the time to check the McDonald’s Web site for restaurants in Africa. The site listed a McDonald’s in the capital of Namibia, Windhoek. A visit there was high on Geoff’s agenda. But when we arrived in Windhoek nearly two months later, we found that the McDonald’s had closed.
Over beers in Windhoek, I told Geoff about my would-have-been practical joke. “Ohhhhhhhhh, bastard!” he guffawed. “Oh, you would have gotten me but good!”
We left Yaoundé the next day, heading towards Gabon. The morning was overcast, but my mood was bright. It was the first time the three of us had ridden together since Ghana, nearly a month earlier. The sight of my two friends on their loaded adventure bikes, ahead of me, was beautiful and arresting.
On motorbikes, adventure riding through Africa! After six long admin days, the journey began anew. Suddenly, all the trials and tribulations of the journey seemed inconsequential. The world was right once more.
We fueled up before leaving Yaoundé. The station attendant overfilled my tank, spilling a little petrol. My tank was as full as it could get.