3 years on the road:

our most memorable moments.

no pay, no pass:  living on the edge in central africa.

Map Equatorial GuineaMost people have never heard of Equatorial Guinea. This tiny land straddles the equator, squashed in between Cameroon and Gabon.  With a population of under a half a million, it's one of the least populous countries in Africa and the only African nation where Spanish is the official language, a legacy of its colonial past.

Despite a per capita GDP of more than US$30 000, Equatorial Guinea ranks 121st out of 177 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.  The 'curse of petroleum' has made a few wildly rich and left most in poverty.   

Few Westerners, apart from oil industry experts, travel to Equatorial Guinea.  The country is truly 'off the beaten track' seeing only a trickle of intrepid backpackers each year.  Corruption is rife in this tiny nation. The consensus among posters on Lonely Planet's Thorntree travel forum was that in Equatorial Guinea, bribes were unavoidable: No Pay--No Pass, was how one jaded Africa traveler put it.  

Equatorial Guinea lies deep in the heart of tropical Africa:  our cycling route followed fast-flowing rivers spanned by rickety wooden bridges, the winding roads lined by inmenetrable rain forest.  As we pedaled, exotic bird calls and monkey cries provided the background music and insects buzzed, bit and sucked our blood until our limbs became big red blotchs.  

Cycling across the country as quickly as possible seemed to be the best strategy.  That way there would be less chance for hassles with police, military and any other officials who might be keen on emptying our pockets.  

Ten.  That's the number of police road block we'd successfully cycled through in 24 hours. We were feeling quite smug. Others caved into requests for bribes, but we stood our ground and got away with it.   Already on the road for almost a year, we’d had plenty of experience dealing with dodgy officials and their crafty methods of extortion.   

We weren't expecting trouble
as we neared our 11th roadblock.  The sound of our pedaling roused the soldier on duty, who was dozing in the shade of a tree by the side of the road.  The soldier looked like he was barely out of his teens and was dressed in scruffy fatigues and flip-flops.  He quickly slipped on a tattered t-shirt before motioning for us to approach. 

We put on our friendliest smiles and a donned a slightly subservient manner that seemed to go down well with low-level officials.

‘Buenos tardes, senor’

‘Pasaportes’,  he grunted in reply.

From a battered desk in his outdoor office, he drew out a faded ledger.  The same tiresome rigmarole…name, nationality, passport number, date of birth, profession, coming from, going to.   Developing countries feed on bureaucracy.  Ledgers to be dutifully filled in and then filed away to be forever forgotten.

As the soldier labored to fill in the ledger, we glanced anxiously at our watches.  A storm was approaching and we wanted to make it to the border before night fall.  Some twenty minutes later, when the young man had checked and double checked his work, and then asked us to check his work, we checked our watches and concluded that if we rode hard and fast, we might just make it to the town we were aiming for before sunset. 

But the soldier refused to return our passports.  

"El jefe.  You wait." he said, thumping the ledger for added emphasis.

Wait for the boss?  Not possible.  You’ve got all the information you need, we assured him.  And we really must be on our way, a storm is rolling in, we pleaded.  Adios, amigo. Nos Vamos  But he was adamant that we wait. 

We contemplated making a break for it.  Our passports were lying on the desk, within easy reach.  Our soldier had returned to his tree.  Should we just grab our precious documents and speed off?  What could the young man do?  Sprint after us?  He had no vehicle at his disposal, so surely he'd never catch us on foot if we fled on our bikes.    But what he did have was a menacing-looking Ak-47. We waited.

A small crowd of curious on-lookers had gathered.  Western tourists are rare in the remote villages of Equatorial Guinea.  In fact, more than once we’d been welcomed by exuberant children calling out ‘Chinos, Chinos’ as we pedaled past.  Apparently the only foreigners those kids were used to seeing were the ubiquitous Chinese road crews paving routes through the thick equatorial jungle.  I’m blond haired and green eyed and with my hard-to-place accent have often been taken for German or Dutch, but never Chinese.

In his own good time, the boss stumbled in, obviously back from a drawn-out drinking spree in the local watering hole. El Jefe was a stout man, prone to shameless belching, who had a wild look in his eyes.   He was slurring his Spanish so badly we could hardly make out his words. But dinero we clearly understood.   2,000 francs (about $4) was the going price for the privilege of passing his checkpoint.  It was a measly sum, but we’d not paid a single bribe since we began cycling 20,000 kilometers back, and stood by the principle of not contributing to corruption. 

We pointed out to el Jefe—as politely as we could-- given that we were seething under a façade of friendliness- that none of his counterparts at the previous 10 roadblocks had requested a special checkpoint processing fee.   

Giving us the evil eye, el Jefe  broke into a rant about the disrespect of foreigners.   

"You foreigners think you own the world."

"My country must be free of imperialists."

"We Africans are not the white man's servant."

That was the gist of it, for as much as we could make out his Spanish. 

Eric and I skulked in our corner, trying our best not to provoke further wrath. It was a game, one we had played many times.  If we were patient, we were sure to prevail.  

Suddenly el Jefe disappeared-- passports in hand--only to reappear a moment later toting his Kalashnikov.  Flinging the weapon casually over the back of his chair, he crossed his arms and smirked.   

Quickly we took stock of the situation.  We were at the outskirts of a remote village in a tiny African country that most people have never even heard of.   Apart from the officials at the previous ten checkpoints, nobody knew of our whereabouts. And, we were at the mercy of an inebriated and well-armed lunatic.

Perhaps it was time to rethink our hardline stance on the paying of ‘miscellaneous fees’.  Hands trembling, I fumbled in the bottom of my handlebar bag to dig out the requested 2,000 francs.  With a wave of his hand, El Jefe refused my offering.

"You give double."  Quickly I handed over the cash, el Jefe rewarded us with the return of our passports and we sped off down the bumpy road.

Guess that guy on the LP forum knew what he was talking about after all.  No Pay.  No Pass.