Epulu is about 400 km northwest of Beni. The first 60km is paved road. The rest is a corrugated and scarred road of hard-packed dirt.
We flew out of Beni, screaming past people on foot, motos, and bicycles. ... Emmanuel swerved to pass every 4-wheel vehicle and moto in our way. It seemed to me that the steering was loose. With every curve, we swung against the road as the driver pulled to keep the car on the road. Staying in our lane was optional. I was sure we were going to careen off the road and slam into a group of school children or mamas laboring under loads of firewood, field greens, charcoal, and water. I had a choice: remain fearful and anxious for the drive or give over to the experience and pray. “You are not in control,” were strangely comforting words that freed me, if not to enjoy the ride, at least to toss along the side of the road
As expected, we came upon several roadblocks and checkpoints. In one case, two checkpoints were only a few hundred meters apart. Some of my Congolese brothers and sisters have lamented that the sudden crop of these checkpoints is related to the calendar. Christmas is coming. People are in need of money, not necessarily for Christmas gifts but for food and perhaps a little drink for celebration.
We were generally flagged through the checkpoints with ease, probably because the officials along the way recognized him. Who you know is just as important in Congo as it is in the US.
We were delayed at the border into Orientale Province. One has to show passports and papers and pay entry fees when crossing from one province to another. Guards looked as over. I don’t know if they were merely doing their jobs, curious, or assessing the potential for extracting additional fees from this party of 3 white women and 2 well-dressed Congolese men in a nice vehicle. Emmanuel and Noe took charge of the situation, popped out of the car, and followed the guards into the border office. Fifteen minutes and some dollars later we were on our way, crossing into Orientale Province with only about 340 km and 5 hours in front of us.
Noe pointed out the irony of the crossing. The purpose of the fees is to maintain the roads. Yet, as we pulled onto rugged landscape of the road, it was clear that road crews had not attended to maintenance in months, if not years.
For the next 5 hours we bumped, jostled, careened, tumbled, and rattled. Sometimes the road was framed by dense vegetation. At other times we sped past villages and indications that families struggled to maintained a livelihood deep into the bush. Even out here, away from the towns of Erengeti, Komanda, and Lowla, and between the villages whose edges are not graced with signs, people walk, carrying the same kinds of loads one sees in Beni: firewood, water, charcoal, greens, bananas.
As a 4-wheel vehicle, we had charge of the road. People would jump off the road into the bush (no shoulder here) to let us pass—or perhaps more to save their lives. Our driver seemed not to care that he splashed some women with their loads as he launched through a deep gulley of muddy water. In one village, a woman yelled as we nearly ran over her ducks dashing to safety at the edge of the road. Somehow the children, even the 4- and 5-year olds, jumped to safety well ahead of our car. No one dared cross the road without looking twice.
Our car reigned over the few motos that we met along the way. Their drivers would pull as close to the edge of the road as possible to let us pass. Coming upon another car or a truck, our driver would honk incessantly—the signal, “Move over, I’m passing.” There were some times when our driver began to pass before the other vehicle had completely moved to the side of the road. I wondered what the chances were that an oncoming lorrie, loaded three-times is height with goods and people, was just ahead, hidden by the truck we were trying to pass, and we were moments away with no escape from a head-on collision.
And did I mention that the road is its own landscape of valleys, hillocks, craters, and occasional plateau?
We arrived at our destination just as dark settled. Emmanuel seemed energized by the drive. He was enthusiastic and sprinted out of the car. The rest of us were weary and worn, yet grateful to be safe and sound.