Sunday, November 2, 2008

To Market, To Market

Today, for the first time, Cleve and I wandered around the town of Aketi apart from the road from the house to the sanctuary.

It was a bit of a madhouse -- we’d decided to go down to the beach because there was a boat arriving in the harbor.

When Cleve had first lived in Aketi a year ago, it was the very definition of a podunk town. Disconnected from its closest brothers by a difficult and barely navigable network of paths -- but it does indeed have connection via the Itimbiri River.

Apparently in the last several months, some enterprising Congolese man and his Lebanese business manager have decided to turn Aketi into more of a port town, like Bumba.

Since then, THREE whole boats, loaded to the gills with merchandise, have arrived here, stirring the town into a frenzy of commerce.

We’ve seen a lot of the evidence of this new vitality, unfortunately in the increased awareness of outsiders. Cleve had previously been able to walk around, quite contentedly, without a lot of fuss.

Yesterday at the beach, we had a frenzy. I think I now know the pain of paparazzi-ridden starlets. Without getting the cash for my fame, of course.

The trip to the market was incredibly fun, though. Cleve and I walked up the main road of town and into the market, swarming not only with children but familiar faces! Mr. Eyebrows, famous for his trip to the house to loan us money, was there in his best suit with his son, who took a karate lesson with Adam!

The toothless man who came to my front door, begging for money and food, and then told me that he’d “take care of the chimpanzees” (and probably eat them) was there too, smiling his big gummy smile at me. We ran into Detti, a close “family” friend who is connected with the project.

Cleve was curious to walk through the meat section of the market. Anyone who knows me well knows that I can’t stand to walk through the fish or meat sections of supermarkets at home --

The stench of the Giant fish section was nothing compared to the stench of these aisles of the Aketi market. Smoked meat mostly, but still rancid, creeping fingerling odor tendrils squeezing their way through the crowded market and stretching through the din to gore the inside of your sensory glands when you’re least expecting it.

Low-slung tables covered in verdant green leaves with hulking carcasses on top of them. The charred cinders of skin and hair did little to obfuscate the form - jutting ribcages, still red and smoking, were connected to hacked shoulders and necks with missing heads.

And covering every surface of exposed meat were the ubiquitous flies, buzzing loudly enough to hear in a conglomerate mass - but upon separation were an inscrutable quantity

I’d imagine it would be jarring for most vegetarians anyway, but perhaps many of my carnivorous friends in the states have had similar experiences in a butcher’s shop -- similar, though probably without the children and the flies.

Most jarring to me, however, was the primate meat for sale: guenons, much like the cadavers I’d seen slung haphazardly over the hunters’ bicycle - but smoked, their toothy grimaces haunting to me even now.

There were, of course, many other things at the market - though the fresh produce here has not yet compared to my memories of East Congo, with their nutrient-rich soil and onions as big as babies’s heads. Most of the tomatoes and eggplants are quite small, but there is a bounty of various seeds and beans, the staple of people here.

We head into the forest tomorrow morning, early, without technology, and just with the thirst for quiet, relaxing, and wildlife-enriched forest time. Cleve says this a lot, but it is slightly disturbing to come to work with a wild and kindred species and have most of your encounters with it be while it is smoked and being sold as meat.

We all hope too that the near-riot of yesterday was not standard fare -- the excitement of Boat Day, as we’re calling it, riling people into an unusual frenzy.

I am hoping eventually to be able to walk around Aketi freely, exploring, without feeling like the Pied Piper with my minions of children behind me.

At least I am learning enough Lingala now to foist attempts to ask me for money.

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