I’ve often travelled to supposedly “dangerous” countries. Coming home I get statements like: “It must have been very scary”, and I nod and look thoughtful for a second as they absorb my incredible bravery. The truth, of course, is that most of the “dangerous” countries are a joy to travel in. They have no tourists, no budget airline flights and their people practically roll out the red carpet when you visit.
I use the word ‘most’ as this is not always the case. Take the Congo, for instance. I visited what is known as the “good” Congo, the one whose capital is Brazzaville and sits on the banks of the River Congo directly opposite Kinshassa, capital of the “bad” Congo.
I was in the country to hunt monsters. I was trying to see if there was any truth to the legend of the Mkele Mbembe, a dinosaur-type creature that supposedly inhabited a remote lake in the far north of the country.
After three days of hard travel I got to the village, whose inhabitants were the unofficial guardians of the lake. I needed to get both their permission and their help to get me to the lake. I thought this would be fairly easy. How wrong I was.
The villagers called a meeting and it was explained to me that we should communicate through a man known as Porte-Parole who would relay our discussions so that we never directly spoke. This was supposedly to avoid any heated exchanges, but it didn’t work too well. The villagers wanted a fairly eye-watering sum of money to help me find the lake, and it was money that I didn’t have. Discussions went on all day until finally, after eight hours, a figure was reached that I could afford, and the deal was done.
To celebrate the villagers threw a party at which I was the guest of honour. We partied all night until my intended guide to the lake took a sudden and violent disliking to me and tried to attack me with a machete.
He had to be held down and then tied to a nearby tree. I quickly realised that I was never going to see the lake and slipped out of the village and off in a canoe at dawn before even worse things happened. I felt like a coward, but I also felt happy to be alive. Having made my way back to Brazzaville, I spent a couple of happy, unexciting days being a tourist. To my surprise and delight there was a large and flourishing Lebanese community in town. I therefore unexpectedly found myself feeling a lot more at home by the banks of the Congo than I’d anticipated. I should have taken some hummus on my trip to Lake Tele – hummus solves everything.