Thursday, October 27, 2011

En Route to Congo by Bus by Gerry Mulcaire

Civil unrest and political instability on an Irish bus 
 ©  2011

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  While sitting on the bus on Merchants quay in Cork, feeling a mixture of apprehension and excitement, and wondering if this trip was worth the risk involved. After-all, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a country which is politically unstable and ravaged by war. Being one of a few white people in a mainly black population, I would stand out like a sore-thumb and with little of the local language it is not going to be easy.

 I read an article in the Examiner about Pat Falvey, the Mountaineer and adventurer from Cork, in which he spoke of his regret in spending so much time away from his family due to his adventure travels. I too have a passion for adventure travel, but also conscious of losing precious time with my kids, or even leaving them without a dad, as has happened to others. This causes conflict in me, but I am consoled by the thought that the good which will come out of this trip is worth the risk.    

 My wife called on my mobile to tell me they would be passing the bus shortly as the kid's wanted to wave at me, so I positioned myself by the window in order to catch their attention. Their eyes searched frantically for me, but they did not see me. My heart sank as I waved at them passing by. "Why did she not slow down driving past," I thought to myself. My attention turned to the other passengers on the bus, which was almost empty, and to the bus driver who had a very abrupt manner. A mother was standing outside the bus as her kids entered and the driver stopped them with an angry tone, hold it! He said. 'What's wrong with him now?', 'they have their tickets!' she shouted.

My attention then turned to the smell of alcohol and urine coming from the back of the bus. A man was lying across the back seats obviously drunk. After the driver was finished checking tickets he went to the back of the bus and tried to wake the drunken man, 'hello! Come on, wake-up! You can't sleep here!', while at the same time calling the Gardai, to have him removed. He then called his supervisor to advise him or her of the situation. Being aware of how much time was already being wasted in travelling by road and ferry to catch my flight in London to my final destination, DRC, which is situated in Central Africa,I did not need this unnecessary delay, nor expect to experience civil unrest so soon.

In the meantime the angry mother was still complaining loudly about the driver's attitude while looking for a seat in the middle of the bus as she moved from the back due to the stench, and probably not wanting to be near the driver either. It was obvious that the driver was irritable and taking it out on the passengers. As it was hard enough leaving my family for two weeks, not sure if I would even see them again, I was trying to stay positive, so not wanting to become a sounding board for her dissatisfaction with the driver and foul smell on the bus, I avoided eye contact with her.

Two Gardai arrived and managed to wake the man at the back and removed him from the bus. He looked to be in his sixties, and I tried to imagine what his story was. "Was he one of the Irish emigrants who went to London in the sixties and seventies?", and ended up alcoholic and homeless like many others. Had he come home for a visit and was now attempting to return to the UK, but had one or two too many to drink. Thinking to myself, 'There go I but for the grace of God', having been like him many years ago. 

All of this put a damper on my romantic thoughts of freedom and adventure. I missed my family already. Anyway, "No turning back now"! I thought to myself as we pulled away from the bus stop.

Things started to look up as we changed drivers in Waterford and the new driver was much friendlier and cheerful. We were not sorry to see the back of the other one. His departure triggered sighs of relief, and comments about his aggressive manner could be heard around the bus.

Eventually we arrived at Rosslare harbour and had to wait a while before we could board the ship. Some of the passengers got out for a smoke, as they had done at every opportunity on the way. Noticing a family with young children playing outside the bus, I missed my own kids already. After a while the driver informed us we would have to get off the bus with our hand-luggage to clear customs, and get back on the bus again to board the ship. Driving straight on would have been more convenient, besides being on the ferry would feel like making more progress on my journey.

As we would be travelling through the night on the ferry, I explored the decks and lounges searching for somewhere to sleep. At one stage while lying across seats in a lounge I heard the voices of the family who were playing outside the bus. The mother was complaining about a man who was being aggressive to the kids. Later, overhearing one of the kids saying that the man looked like he was going to grab one of them, and sensing there was a bit of paranoia going on, I moved to another spot in case of being a suspect, as I was travelling alone. 

Next morning as we were waiting for the deck door to open , this family were also waiting at the same door, and the mother gave me an accusing look  as she said to her daughter 'Come over here love!,' while keeping her gaze on me. Feeling offended by her look I was hoping she could see the picture of my kids on my mobile phone, which was at an angle so she could see them, and see I am a parent too. Then, another frightful thought, 'What if she thinks I am taking photos of her kids?' Later on I was regretting not saying something like" Don't worry I have enough of them at home."
Maybe I should be more understanding as I am very protective over my own children. At this stage, having enough of this paranoia I was hoping the deck doors would open.

It was good to be back on the bus making headway on my long journey. We had a few more stops before we reached London, and eventually arrived. As if there was not enough paranoia to deal with on the journey, worse was to come here. Mainly due to the terrorist threats and the Glastonbury festival which is a major event in the UK there were police with sniffer dogs checking commuter's bags. Being conscious of the fact that I would be waiting for some time, and the police being on high alert, my presence would seem suspicious to them. Loads of people were being stopped and searched, and although I had nothing to hide having two suitcases and a ruck-sack it would have been very inconvenient, besides I was tired, and impatient to start the next leg of my journey. Being so eager to get on the bus for Heathrow I jumped the queue without realising it, but on hearing a sarcastic remark from the driver, promptly apologised to the other passengers, and boarded the bus, happy to see the back of Victoria.

Finally we arrived in Heathrow, where I could begin to make faster headway to my destination. After rearranging the contents of my bags to sort out the stuff to carry in my hand-luggage and weigh the bags again, there was another long wait for check –in. With my suitcases checked in I was able to relax and felt much freer. 
Boarding was announced and I was finally on my way, feeling foolish for wasting so much time travelling by road and ferry, when I could have been here in less than 2 hours if I had taken a flight, but on second thoughts considering my budget was tight  I saved myself a lot of money.

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