Greg Traverso vividly describes his encounters with the military in Zaire. From an intense moment out of nowhere when machine guns are drawn to a little bent nail serving as the lock on the door of his shack inside a remote military outpost to an encounter with a scalawag corporal and his minions on the banks of the Congo River and a strange request for safe passage, Greg shares his foray into no man’s land.
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Bob Spoerl: Hey there and welcome to the Metamo podcast, where we explore with you and our guests travel topics and push the boundaries in celebration of a human experience. Today, I’m joined again by my co-host, Greg Traverso, the founder of Metamo, a travel company that that offers a number of excursions across Africa.
And today it’s just Greg and I, we’re going to have a conversation about one specific moment in his journey across Africa.
Let me start by saying that what happened to Greg on one of his transformational trips across Africa is not going to happen with people traveling with Metamo – I can guarantee that! And I get to paint the picture for you. Greg, how did you get out of this right is what I am wondering. Let’s set the scene: It is early 90s. Greg is on the border of Uganda and what was then Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. And for some context, there is some tension. There’s strife between the borders here. And as an example, the night before there had been a grenade thrown into a bar and sadly, five people had been killed in a bar. And so Greg is at this moment in his travels where he’s deciding whether or not to cross that border into Zaire and continue on his trek. And he runs into some adversity, I’ll say. So Greg, take it from there. What happens next?
Greg Traverso: Oh, yes. I heard the explosion. I had heard what happened and had to leave this small town in Uganda through no man’s land on my way to the Zairian border. And so I walked. It was a 1.5 kilometer down this dirt track. And I had my belongings, which was my day pack, my camera, but also a bag full of things to trade along the Congo. When I got deeper inside, money kind of runs out as a source. And so you trade with items. I was ready to do some bartering in a different way. And I’m walking along with this heavy bag full of tradable items I had picked up. And a guy comes up to me and he’s on his bicycle and he’s a nice, nice young man. His s name was Patrick. And he didn’t ask for anything. And he said, Voulez-vous mettre vos affaires sur mon vélo? (hey, you want me to help you carry your bag and the back of his bike?”). And I said, chose sûre (“sure thing”). You know, I’m by myself, obviously, and had a lot of my mind. I’m going to enter into the Congo, to the border post. So we walk for this mile and a half together. We talked and he spoke French and some Swahili. I don’t speak too much of either language but we were able to communicate that whole entire time. And I get to the border and say goodbye to Patrick and I end up there on this remote border most realizing it was a military checkpoint. The guidebook didn’t say that. And this was a very rare place for a traveler to travel through. But it was what worked at the time. And I ended up at that border post not being able to find to ride into the interior. The border agent, the guy there, wasn’t too friendly at first, but he warmed up to me and vice versa and I actually ended up giving him my Adventures of Tom Sawyer book I had read. And he was starting to really try to look after me a little bit. He finally found me a ride.
It was a maroon Toyota and it was rather beat up. And I got in on the back of that thing and I was ready to, for the first time, head into Zaire on my way across to cross the continent. For a moment it felt like I was starting this new leg of the journey. Well, the vehicle turned around and went back into Uganda. So now I’m actually illegal back in Uganda because I already have my passport stamped and they go to a market and they pick up a load of bananas and more people. And there’s so many people and hands of bananas piling in that I finally ended up in the cab of the truck and it turned around about that time the sun was starting to go down and it was a beautiful night and things were just glowing with that equatorial light, the beautiful glow. But I was a little uneasy still cruising with lots of people heaped on the back of the truck. I was lucky to be in the cab which I had given the driver some money to be able to sit in there with him. And as we were driving along about, I don’t know, maybe halfway back down that one point five-mile dirt road, all of a sudden out of nowhere out of the bush dropped two soldiers with AK 47. And they come flying out. And I’m saying c’est dangereux?! c’est dangereux?!, c’est dangereux?! (Is it dangerous?! Is it dangerous?! Is it dangerous?!). And the driver was going oui! oui! oui! (yes! yes! yes!). So they come right to my window. They come around, and one guy sees me on my side. And I’m like, you know, I can’t even tell you how scared I was. And my window was down at the time. And I look and he looks at me and it was Patrick. And I said, “Patrick?!. And he was like, Gregoire! And I get out of the car and we talk like we’re long lost friends. He had just helped me bring my stuff down that road in civilian clothes and he had changed into his military fatigues. I have no idea what the heck is going on. I just happened to be in the truck that they stuck up coming back up the road. He let everybody go. They let everybody go. What was happening was the Zairian troops had not been paid for two years, so they just stuck up the local civilians for some money. And I happened to be in that truck. So we got off the truck back at the border post and I actually gained a lot of clout in that vehicle (laughs). But the border was closed. It was by that time almost dark. And the border agent at this outpost took me and he said in French or Swahili something to the effect, “look, we need to get you a safe place to stay.” Well, there were no hotels or anything like that. It was a military checkpoint. There were nothing but men, young men, fatigues and campfires all around. And I was not knowing where I was going to stay, but he found me this little hut, this little shackt. And I don’t know what I paid, probably a dollar or something. And I ended up in there that night. There was a little bed. There was a nail on the wall for the lock and there were little rats and it was dirty and I was not going to sleep. Interestingly and ironically, my flashlight broke the first time I turned it on. My watch had already stopped working, and I’m in this little room and it’s dark and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m just going to sit up all night.’ Well, I tried that for a long time not to sleep. Not to lay down on that filthy little bed. I have candles going. And then about midnight, somewhere around there, I hear a knock on the door on my little wooden door. And I, I opened it up and there’s like a glow from the campfires. And it was these two young guys silhouetted by the glow of the fires. They were probably around 16 years old, in fatigues of course with their little machine guns. And they were drunk. They were asking me for money in French or in a Swahili and French kind of a combination. And I, I just at that moment, one of those moments that you don’t plan on. It was actually a turning point for me. I just, I just kicked them out. I just said, no, this isn’t happening. You know, at that point, that confidence of just having traveled all the way up from all the way from Zimbabwe by myself for most of the trip and knowing deep down what to do. So instinctively, I threw them out and closed the door and went to sleep.
The next morning I got back on the truck and we started to drive on dirt roads through the rainforest. And there were a series of checkpoints, military checkpoints that we got through. And the they would come up and ask me for things. And I just basically said no and just used just confidence to say, look, you know, I’m traveling through. But it was a little scary, especially, you know, getting guys jumping out of the bush with the machine guns just the evening before. And it was just wild to happen to know that guy. It felt like luck was on my side. And then that night was a long one so I had a feeling that perhaps the worst was behind me. And after several of these checkpoints the military checkpoints started to run out. And over the days and weeks to come, as I got deeper into Zaire and eventually on the Congo River, I did have one incident that I remember where I had the military, three soldiers in a canoe, “pull me over.” They didn’t pull their guns on me, but they asked me to go through my stuff on the banks of the river. I don’t know what they were looking for. There was a little beach of sorts by a little village. I ended up ‘buying them’ lunch. We had a gigantic Capitaine fish – I believe it’s a hogfish – that was just caught. And together with some villagers we ate it there on the side sitting on some logs next to the river. Then they went through my stuff some more picking up things and looking at everything closely. And in the end, their leader, this colonel or whatever rank he was had this moment where he was quiet and thinking. I was wondering how much or what he was going to ask me for. It was quiet for a while. Then he said, “Je veux que vous m’envoyiez des magazines National Geographic lorsque vous serez de retour aux États-Unis” (“I want you to send me National Geographic magazines when you are back in the United States”). Of all things that he wanted from me for safe passage onward was National Geographic magazines! And so we had this conversation. He gave me an address. I promised him I would send him National Geographic’s which, when I got home to California months later, I ended up putting together of a bunch of my old National Geographics, boxed them up and sent them to this outpost or wherever to the address he gave me somewhere in the Congo.
And God knows if it ever arrived, but I did make good on my word.
Bob Spoerl: That’s incredible, a dangerous moment that you were able to work your way out of, Greg. You end up becoming a kind of hero with your National Geographic stories. That’s you know, I kind of want to know the end of that.
Greg Traverso: Do you think (laughs).
Bob Spoerl: Do you think he got him? What do you think the chances are?
Greg Traverso: Well, let me tell you, across this part of the Congo, which is, you know, the third-largest country in Africa is the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s about the size of the United States, west of the Rockies. A huge country. And crossing it, you know, there would be little towns or villages deeper in on occasion, but there was no post offices to speak of because if there was one there were no stamps, maybe three people working there. There would be banks in the larger towns, but there was no money, you know, so the chances of this arriving one would think would be minimal. But the way things work as they do in that part of the world, I would say the chances are actually pretty high. It probably cost him something, but being a military officer, he probably had some the moe joe. My guess is the magazines made it there. All these years later I like to think they are still being looked at. That’s my feeling, because in Africa, despite a lot of issues the people have to face, things work in a way that you wouldn’t believe sometimes.
Bob Spoerl: I’d like to think that it is that he was able to read the National Geographic and smiling at that guy Greg. He really followed through on his word and so cool.
Yeah. So this is great.
Next time we’re going to continue going through some more of these incredible stories behind the scenes with Greg’s crossing of the Congo. That’s going to be a lot of fun. And stay tuned. But in the meantime, if if you’re thinking about just wanting to learn more about travel to Africa, Greg is the founder and head of Metamo.
It’s a travel company. It’s Metamo.travel if you want to see something online, learn more about the journeys that he organizes. Greg’s decades of experience traveling across the continent he’s been able to put together some incredible excursions.
And you can also just e-mail email@example.com and a representative will answer any questions that you have. Greg, as always, it was a pleasure. And I’m looking forward to continuing to share with our audience some of these behind the scenes stories about crossing the Congo.
Greg Traverso: Thanks, Bob.