Saturday, February 28, 2009
I remember mocking the movie Twister for using growling animal noises as the sound of the storm at its height, but I’ve gotta say -- when you’re surrounded by forest and that heavy sound approaches as fat droplets hit the leaves -- it could be mistaken for a monster!
Especially when viewed in conjunction with the response - panicked scurrying, putting everything and everyone indoors... our clothes were finally dry, so we brought them in!
I just hope this rain doesn’t make the trip back tomorrow worse!
The more we do, the gladder I am I came.
Not only has being here been illuminating (though somewhat horrifying), but a certain worker botched some stuff yesterday, and I’ve gotten the chance to correct it today.
If I hadn’t come, I’d consider it nearly irreparable!! Phew!!
Though... still stiff... I’m not sure how I’m going to walk the 8 miles tomorrow!
At least our socks are dry now! In between computing salaries and fixing problems, we got to play cards with some of the guys here, who are good-natured for sure! We used a stool and a diamond sieve as a table.
It’s not every day you can say that!
Polycarpe headed down to the river to video the guys diamond-searching.
We might head down soon for photos too!
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Who’d ever imagine the during the dry season, we’d be trapped in our tent in a monsoon-like rain -- in fact, throughout this entire trip, I believe we’ve only had two nights without rain!
Some “dry season”!!
Early yesterday morning, still a day away from our scheduled mine deparature date, Polycarpe confessed to me that the “2 hour walk” to the mine was actually an 8 mile trek through tangled forest!
Even worse, he told me the tale of a terrible, shaky bridge (eeeeeeee!!!)
Worried for my safety, Polycarpe offered to go FOR me, meaning he’d also have to do my research. I thought long and hard -- one has to realize that there are no safeties here -- things that are “dangerous” are very literally perilous -- but after careful consideration, I realized that not only was it my responsibility to take the research myself -- but that if anything were to go wrong (as they always do in Congo), I’d be utterly screwed.
So, fluffing up my courage and determination, we packed up the tent yet again to head off on another adventure.
I did try to convince Adam to stay behind, but he refused!
Polycarpe wasn’t kidding!!
We waded through rivers, and lakes of mud. We had to acrobatically balance our way around slippery edges of old mining troughs -- uphill and down -- careful to avoid snagging vines and tripping tree stumps, we walked.
Thankfully the forest canopy protected us from too much sun and heat, but it was impossible not to get soaked. Everyone else was barefoot, but Adam and I had foolishly donned sneakers and socks, and endured the soggy squish-squelch of each step.
8 miles is quite a distance under any circumstances, but unsteady, windy, muddy terrain is really taxing!!
It was neatly 6 miles before we reached the bridge -- which was, to be fair, not nearly as bad is it had been in my imagination!
Sure, getting onto and off of the bridge was terrifying -- a precarious web of sticks and branches -- but with Seba and Adam’s help, it felt almost easy.
But the “bridge” itself was just a huge fallen tree over a clear, pretty brook. At its worst points, maybe a five foot drop.
And here I’d feared something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!!
Once past the bridge, we had about 2 miles to go -- the distance I used to walk daily from my old apartment to Columbia’s campus.
At this point, however, between the branch climbing and mud wading, my legs had just had enough.
Each lift felt more harder than the last, and our pace slowed considerably. 2 miles felt like 4, and, feeling grouchy and defeated, I wondered if we’d ever make it.
But we did, the wooden entrance gate imposing even among the tall trees.
The mining camp is huge -- much larger than I could have imagined -- and lined with rows of long, open-sided houses, army-barracks style.
Two to three men sleep to a bed, and each long barrack has maybe 20-30 beds.
The beds are really just wooden frames with bamboo sticks stretched across them. Some, though not many, have mats on top of the sticks, but not most. Maybe only 1 in 50 has a mosquito net.
It’s easy to read about deplorable conditions, but it’s another thing to see them.
There is a constant sound emanating from the forest --digging and sifting -- and the men who return from their shifts are caked with the white residue from the mineral soil.
Everyone asks if we have medicine, or cigarettes... everyone is sick, but rippled with muscle.
While we’re organizing, a guy comes back with provisions for the mining camp from town. All the men cheer -- they’ve sent diamonds back to town, to the boss, who doles out cash that they use to buy food.
Not enough diamonds ... not enough food.
People are lining up, including this kid with a baby face.
“How old are you?” I ask him.
“13,” he replies sheepishly.
He’s not allowed to participate at 13, but his presence in the camp haunts me the rest of the night.
This is no place for anyone, let alone some 13 year old kid.
Who sends their kids to a diamond mine to work at 13? (most likely sooner)? What is this?? Oliver Twist??
Each man has a label, so I can coordinate his interview with his sample. The men seem to like being labeled.
“I am number 134,” a man with no teeth in the front says to me proudly, smiling.
He seems too to relish telling a man who came to get a sticker that he was too late! Only 20 men needed!
But by the end of the night, digging into our beans and rice (our first real food of the day, before OR after the 8 mile death march).
Both Adam and I felt extremely satisfied, not to mention exhausted, sore and stiff!!
We’d also economized our sleeping arrangements for the hike, bringing nearly nothing but sample tubes, collection materials, the tent, and TP.
No sleeping bag to lay on the tent floor, we discovered HOLES!! Oh no!!
It was also extremely ragged and cold earth, and we had nothing but cold, soggy, dirty clothes (and TP) as pillows.
Not surprising that it was a fitful night of sleep -- the huge rainstorm only compounded the discomfort, and rain snuck between our tent and footprint, making for a soggy situation. The rain continued through the morning too -- I was so glad that we weren’t leaving today!!
Until, that is, our cook told me that he’d “miscalculated” the rations and that we were out of food!!
Thankfully, we were able to buy some off of the camp’s commandant, and now, at 11:18, the sun is FINALLY out.
With luck, it’ll dry our soaked clothes!
And I’ll try to take video of miners at work to show anyone who’s keen on buying diamonds!
Friday, February 27, 2009
We realized last night that we’ve spent nearly a month in the tent in the last six months!
... that might explain the smell!
It is already Friday, another week having whizzed by and I’m hoping the next two days are as productive as yesterday.
Life on the road has been such a rush, but I think Adam and I both are looking forward to the regularity of life in Aketi. What’s more, we have so much to do before flying the chimps out!
Their transport baskets still need to be commissioned, and the grass of the airfield still needs to be cut.
I imagine that the bulk of our worldly goods will go as gifts to our workers -- it’s the norm.
On this trip alone,many of them seem to have “claimed” items already -- borrowing them and then wearing them constantly, and clearly not giving them back.
One worker was lent my bucket hat when it rained on us in the forest yesterday. He’s worn it ever since, extolling its virtues (it’s just a bucket hat). But we’ve decided he just loves hats! (Adam wonders if it isn’t the reason he joined Islam!)
Adam’s infection is finally gone, and his hair is long enough to put into a poinytail! We’d thought about getting him a haircut in Kampala (Uganda), but now he’s just thinking about letting it grow -- and apparently having dreams about Tom Cruise advertising the Hair Cuttery!
I am certainly feeling more calm and relaxed, closer to done. And I wish I could describe the peace of forest living.
Inside the tent each night, we look above at the stars, clear and bright. No light pollution out here!
What has been strange is that, high high above us, there is some sort of flight path for jets that we hear sporadically throughout the day. We think about where the jets may be going, or coming from -- or the people in the planes who look down below at us -- at the unilluminated blackness -- and assume that there is nothing there.
A huge caravan of gas porters rested here last night at Membulu. Four guys each with seven 25L jerry cans of gas, on their way to Bondo.
It’s quite an enterprise for this their boss, who bought the gas for $2.50 a litre in Aketi and will sell it for $5 a litre in Bondo.
Even worse, these four guys who travel a week with the gas each make less than $100!!
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
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Being in Likati again makes me feel like the next stop is Aketi, though there’s still another mine ahead.
We had a bit of a money crisis yesterday, upon being told that many of the food supplies we’d purchased for 21 days were nearly finished... after only 12 days.
And as simple as it may be to say “I miscalculated”... it’s still not much of an excuse.
We’d also had some provisions go inexplicably missing (though why anyone would steal bouillion cubes is beyond me) -- so after having to spend another $15 on supplies for the next 5 days, we had to have a talk.
Living and working and being together is an easy cement to make us here -- Adam and I and our employees -- feel like a family.
But when they begin to treat us like parents (and thusly act like children) it becomes a real problem.
It’s a responsibility that’s tough to shoulder, because they seem to have n unwavering faith that whatever stupid thing they do or plan they mess up, that we will have the ability and the means to fix it... which just isn’t the case.
And as I write this (waiting again to be picked up), I suddenly realize some of the reasons my mother complains so much!
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
The immediacy of information in America is enough to spoil anyone, and my impatience is testament to that.
I thought that at least the bikes would be here by now, but really, there’s nothing I can do but wait.
There’s no one I can call (that is, if my phone worked) and no way to discover whether the bikes are 30 minutes away or 3 hours -- or even if Adam has already picked up!
So I wait.
Stupidly, I left my current book in Difongo with Adam so I don’t have much to do to entertain myself.
At this rate, I’ll have to add goat-watching to my CV!
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We flew the coop --
--- for more chimp poop!
It’s only just noon, and I write this entry again from the cathedral in Likati! Quelle surprise!
It rained hard again in the night, but we got together early this morning for a misty, wet pow-wow.
Polycarpe and Seba would head off northeast with a team of 3 local trackers, and Richard and I would send out arrays of local trackers from Difongo (with the promise of primes).
The plan in hand, we walked up the road to a bigger village to find some trackers.
One would imagine that so many idle men would jump at the chance to earn a little money. But our problem was.... they didn’t.
Filled with many more excuses than with enthusiasm, we no longer wondered why they complained about being hungry and poor.
These were some lazy slackers!!
Disgusted, Polycarpe came to me with a new plan -- much more radical, but with a much better potential for success!
We would leave Difongo today, spend the night in Likati, then travel another 40km towards Aketi to Membulu, the town closest to the Mongombo Mine.
It had been among the mines already surveyed and had been a strong contender for research -- disease-ridden and right next to a forest full of chimps!
Even better (for the research AND for our current needs) -- it was home to 400 men, all keen to earn money!
There was barely time to finish our tea and bananas before we were packing again and saying our goodbyes.
This time, I went first on the moto, so that I could arrange dinner and lodging at the cathedral -- something a bit hard for Adam to do alone!
I wasn’t anxious about the trip -- it was road already travelled, after all. But it had been raining a lot and I was concerned that it might be muddy.
It thankfully was not, but a lot of bamboo had fallen across the road in the downpours! At some points, looking down ahead, I felt like Catherine Zeta-Jones, preparing to avoid the red laser trip wires in my black unitard.
Seba is quite a bit taller than me, and would call out Keba (Lingala for “watch out”) everytime we prepared to go under some fallen bamboo.
Probably one of the only times being short has benefitted me, I only had to duck maybe 1 of every 10 times Seba called Keba.
It was a bit dangerous though, because I was less quick to heed warnings and nearly got my head knocked off once or twice, particularly since so much bamboo had fallen lower and further than it had been on our original voyage *out* to Difongo.
We stopped once to pull an enormous log off to the side of the road, and it was afterward that I heard quite a crashing from the underbrush!
Pausing, frozen with the delight of anticipation, I had Seba turn off the moto as I squinted from the leaves.
Could there be chimps here?
The chimps that had eluded me all week, just eating lazily by the side of this rod while I lug big bamboo?
I took several cautious, silent steps forward, holding my breath.
It was then that I saw it...
the huge grey face of a baboon, grimacing at me just before he let out a loud bark of warning.
Booo! Baboon!! (but still exciting!)
We continued on.
The road between Likati and Difongo is especially bad in the 20km closest to Difongo, but getting that out of the way first made the time go by SO much quicker!
We’d already gone 27km before the pain in my backside even inclined me to stop and rest. But time was essential! I’d left poor Adam alone in Difongo, with no food and no French, and if he left there any later than 3pm, he’d risk finishing the trip during the night.
So I didn’t stop! Not even once! The last 10km were killer too -- very bumpy and windy -- so much so that I can’t even count the number of times my tush was airborne!
But I made it and have arranged for evening poondoo already -- and got here in only 2.5 hours! Seba’s already left to fetch Adam - who I’ll still worry about since he’s got another leg infection and a little fever... and a proclivity for worrying and is forbidden to smoke anymore!
I, however, am filled with a new hope (the Star Wars variety) because everyone seems to think we’ll have a much easier time in Membulu and Mongombo.
Plus, it’s on the road back towards Aketi, and once there we’ll literally be on the countdown clock to getting home!
Monday, February 23, 2009
Somewhat alarmingly, a bevy of policemen in full uniform (with full guns) just arrived to our teeny village.
Allegedly here to see the Chef Du Grouppement (our host) -- their arrival gave us quite a start!
We’re told they’re on the hunt for elephant killers - maybe the same ones we saw on the road last week!
If they arrest someone, I’m keen for photos, though I’m not particularly hopeful.
It did indeed make us feel less wary after one of the officers Jun-Bi’d to Adam! It was one of his karate students from Aketi!
(The officers had walked together the 125km distance between Difongo & Aketi)
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A night’s sleep and a big planning session with Polycarpe made things feel a lot better and under control.
We’ll head out tomorrow in the direction of those chimp calls, and head further out the day after.
I realized too that if I end up needing to stay in the forest longer, so be it. And if that means delaying moving the chimps a little, that’ll have to be okay too.
Situations are not always ideal, especially in Africa. But you just do the best you can.
Desperate for a pick-me-up, I bathed with a little hot water Olivier made for me. My first bathing in a week!
And afterwards, things did feel better. I changed my clothes, and tidied the tent, and played some cards too.
It’s sometimes these moments that leave you the most prone to enchantment, too.
While Adam and I washed our clothes this morning in the river, African-style, sitting on a rock with my feet submerged in the cool clear water and my pants rolled up, a group of guenons came upon us.
At first, they alarm called busily, but as we continued on, undeterred, they got more curious.
The adolescents even came down into the lower canopies of the trees and bobbed their heads, their little snow-white noses glowing even in the darkness of the forest.
I kept scrubbing the clothes, but kept my head raises to keep watching our companions.
Not ever a fan of laundry, scrubbing our dirties in the briskly cold, idle little stream - the sun shining on me from the break in the trees above the “road” -- it was invigorating and sort of magical.
Well, at least as magical as laundry can get ;)
Sunday, February 22, 2009
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We waited all day for our ancient old local tracker, Dido, to take us into the forest behind the village to look for chimps.
We JUST discovered after asking 50 times that he feels “too sick to go” -- of course, he wasn’t too sick to head in this morning to the palm trees deep in the forest to harvest more palm wine!
Potential chimp contact - ruined. Another day - wasted.
Plus, Richard and Seba came back from their expedition empty handed.
No chimps -- all the way out there! Lots of elephants, and okapis, but no chimps. Another 2 days wasted!
I’m in the middle of a complete freakout because we’ve been here in Difongo a week without much to show for it!
My hopes for legitimacy and really uncovering something here are slipping away so quickly that I don’t even have time to grab them up again.
Coupled with the feelings of helplessness to fix things going on at home -- it’s a complete clusterfuck.
I’m too overwhelmed even to problemsolve right now, my trusty Crutch During Times Of Difficulty.
I’m just thinking of all the money I’ve spent and litres I’ve vomited and volumes I’ve sweat ... only to come this far and fail!
our ability to internet.
Going online today felt more frustrating than anything else... Adam's
computer sucks battery like nobody's business.
But we're fine, alive. 2 chimp faecal samples down and 18 to go!
I was nearly hit yesterday by some falling bamboo in the forest,
because it's been really rainy and windy!
Am thankfully okay and we're happy.
Today is apparently Bath Day for the village children -- it’s been sort of hilarious as they all run around, screaming and laughing, wet and soapy.
Afterwards, they all sit by the fire naked to warm up. I wouldn’t object to a bath myself today, though I think I’ll forgo the naked fire-sitting or the public nudity in general.
Yesterday evening, a man came by to sell us EGGS -- but they were HUGE!!!
We discovered that they were NOT from a mutant huge chicken... but from a CROCODILE.
Adam is actually going to EAT them this morning! but the very idea of them gives me the wiggins.
What does help either is Olivier’s answer to Adam’s question:
“Since they don’t need to be kept warm, if we wait too long to eat them, will they hatch?”
to which Olivier said,
“We will eat them tomorrow!”
... Yea.... I’ll pass.
The same guy came by this morning with a fish to sell, apparently undeterred by whatever etiquette exists regarding peering into tent windows while holding a smelly fish first thing in the morning.
Thankfully not motivated by a personal desire to eat fish, I asked by the price. The eggs the day before had been reasonably priced, so imagine by surprise when he asked for 10,000FC!! About $15US! Not even Citarella is that expensive!
I was so offended that I told him to take his stinky fish and leave the village!
I tend to be of the mindset that when people try to run Mondele Price Scams that they should not receive any business to punish them and hopefully impart a lesson about honesty.
I do, however, feel bad for depriving my non-vegetarian companions of fish (that is, everyone *except* me)!
After a certain point, though, your tolerance for these kinds of shennanigans is just at an end.
In other news, Polycarpe swears he heard chimps in the night behind his side of our little village, so after breakfast, we’ll head over to investigate!
... Provided Adam’s breakfast doesn’t eat him first!
Saturday, February 21, 2009
No one said that life out here was easy! Polycarpe has malaria now, and I was nearly knocked out this morning by a falling piece of bamboo!
It missed me by mere INCHES, and I’m still a bit shaken.
But I’d previously thought that nighttime trips to our forest toilet were the worst fear I could fall prey to! With the blackness of night and path, subject to a variety of snakes and carnivorous bugs, it was a reason to hold it until sunup!
Of course, all this pales in comparison to a tale I was told yesterday by a man who’d had diarrhea for five months straight!
He’d bought his cooking oil from a large refinery in Bumba, like many people.
The refinery had huge vats of oil, as big as a house. It was on a trip to get more oil that this man discovered the refinery was CLOSED!
A year previous, there had apparently been a thief, who had scaled one of the vats with the intention of stealing oil from the opening on top.
Unfortunately, it was slippery with (what else BUT) ... OIL! and the thief fell into the oil and drowned.
But no one KNEW! So they kept selling the oil, and people kept consuming it, and when people complained about the taste, I’m told it was blamed on the long-term storage in the tank.
Who knows how, or why they finally discovered the thief, but by the time they did, he was nothing but bones!
I’d say “only in Congo” -- but it wouldn’t surprise me anywhere anymore!
Friday, February 20, 2009
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Neither Adam nor I can believe that February is so close to being over!! Where did the time go?
Today is not a forest adventure day, but an adventure day nonetheless!
Seba & Richard left today for a “long” verification trip -- apparently “too long” for me (20km), so I’ve just accepted that and have moved on. Sort of. But not 20km.
We did, however, buy some local poondoo today and Adam and i have been learning how to make it from SCRATCH!
We’ll search out cassava leaves at home so we can make it there too (especially when Cleve comes to visit!). But I think it’ll be a lot easier with a food processor!!
Being here in the forest at the end of February is making us realize how close to the end of this trip we are! And we are filled too with thoughts of home.
We are extremely happy, though, keeping warm by the fire and singing along with the “I Want Candy” bird!
Thursday, February 19, 2009
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We sat down tonight to discuss out next moves -- it seems prudent to divide our troop for better success -- we are indeed surrounded by chimps.
I’m skeptical, but hopeful! I’ll take what I can get!
We talked a lot too about the fate of the elephants in this area.
They’re apparently part of the migratory groups in Gangu/Bili, and they traverse the Bas-Uèle River to forage (in both the Bondo Territory and our territory - the Aketi Territory).
They’re more typically on our side of the river during the wet season, which explains why the two samples we’ve found thus far of elephant dung are about a month old.
I’m told too that while on this side of the river, they are hunted viciously, though they might now be hunted on both sides!
Even so, those hunters I saw with elephant meat probably came from the Bondo side.
Either way, it seems dire!
It’s just as well that we were delayed by the morning rain -- most of the local trackers were otherwise occupied by the harvest today so we wouldn’t have been able to get much done.
In fact, after the rain, there was a mass village exodus to the “fields”! A cold isolation crept over our tiny site, and with the cool brought on by the rain, Adam and I hid in our tent for warmth and shelter.
The sun did finally come out so we did some impromptu laundry, washing mostly just underpants using a tea mug filled with water (there are no big plastic buckets here) -- we are certainly not Hotele Mondeles!
We socialized a bit with the local chief, who were are living in extreme proximity to (orchestrated by Polycarpe to ensure our safety).
No one could believe that Adam and I are both Americans, though, because we look “so different”!! It was indeed a difficult sell, explaining that nearly EVERYONE in America looks different!
Oh, what a different perspective here!
With the rain cooling things down, the weather is now feeling perfect and balmy. Walking out to the “toilet” -- I surprised a group of guenons who chirped at me alarmedly throughout my pee.
What a life this is!
I’ve taught all our workers how to play Egyptian Rat Screw -- a card game whose skill I honed to perfection during rest periods at my all-girls’ school.
Simple enough to pick up, the guys really took to it and we’re enjoying our “rain delay” ... and waiting for Polycarpe to return so we can discover what he encountered!
And while we were in camp, another local man (the owner of the ONLY dog I’ve seen out here) said that there was yet another population of chimps about 15km out!
So, another verification mission and more excitement of potential discovery!!
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I don’t know what it is about our presence in Congolese forests that inspires it to rain so much, but poor Mortimer (our tent) is certainly getting a workout!
Today, once it stops raining, I’ll send Richard and Seba out to verify a population of chimps about 5km from here.
I’ve still seen and documented plenty for a compelling thesis, I think.
Life out here is no cakewalk, certainly. The entire village here has the same cold with a dry, hacking cough. They looked to us for medicine, but we’d only brought malaria and worm medicine!
And some pseudo-Vicks chest rub, regrettably ineffectual, but we gave it to them nonetheless.
Olivier has malaria now, but continues to cook for us, wrapped in my wool shawl.
It’s been a week now since I left Aketi! Time has gone so fast!
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
It’s been an exhausting day, and it’s only Tuesday! The forest here is indeed teeming with life, despite the disturbing amount of hunting that passes for “normal” here.
I’m tempted to stop looking at passing bicycles’ cargo baskets, but cannot.
To see the delicate hands of a female agile mangabey dangling lifeless next to a pile of bananas -- it’s tough. I notice her distended nipples, and wonder how many infants she had or whether she’d had one earlier today at the time she was killed.
We haven’t gotten any chimp poop yet, but countless people have come to tell us of chimp populations and more elephant evidence.
Tomorrow we head out 2 hours from here to verify potential ground nests, which could be a great find, since it ties into the Mega Culture of Northern Congolese chimps.
And we’ve found numerous bembe (snail) smash sites too -- the local here said that chimps rip turtles from their shells to eat them too, and showed me a shell they’d found in the forest, but I’m a bit skeptical. The shell looked a bit too fire-charred for me.
Polycarpe left today on another verification mission quite far from here -- he might be gone two days, but allegedly, there is a LARGE chimp population there!
Best to know for sure!!
Life in the forest feels otherwise peaceful, if not a bit itchy and dirty already.
I’m looking forward to what we’ll find tomorrow!
Monday, February 16, 2009
Okay, so the exuberant joy of earlier has somewhat diminished in the oppressive heat of logistics. Sure, there are chimpanzees all around us in these forests, but they’re smart enough to stay away from these villages and mines.
Part of me bristles at being told told that these chimps are “too far away for [me] to walk,” because I pride myself on my constitution, but the realistic part of me knows that I certainly wouldn’t be able to walk 9 miles there and back in a day through dense jungle.
None of this drudgery has been helped by the arrival of a baby baboon, tied around the waist and hopelessly attached to an utterly indifferent girl.
I’m hoping the girl and her captive will leave soon, so I can stop listening to the baboon cry when she swats it away with a stick or I can stop yelling at this callous 8 year old girl who continues to torment it for fun.
It’s so discouraging to see right at the start of this trip, I suddenly doubt whether I can do any good here or whether all of my lecturing just falls on deaf ears.
Yes, the next Ebola could start right here, and each of these hunters I’ve seen could be responsible for the death of every person within 100km of here (or further)...
But what do I say to make them care?
For not having gotten any chimp poop yet, today feels already extremely busy and yet somewhat fruitful!
An extremely old man who lives locally told us tales of a “recent” elephant dung less than a kilometer from Difongo, so we headed out just after 9 am today.
Perhaps the sun or the water (or the palm wine) had gotten to the old man, but his measurements were slightly off -- it wasn’t until we’d walked for over an hour that he said we were “close.”
It was amazing how easily this man could disappear among the leaves, and how quietly and quickly he moved through the underbrush!
We saw a lot of evidence of an elephant route -- we nearly followed it by accident on our way out! But we did finally come across the dung.
It was old -- maybe a month and a half, and was sprouting greens!
Elephants are less plentiful this side of the river, but also less hunted.
On the route out, we were able to look around a little more and discovered what we believe to be a chimpanzee bembe smash site! And next to it, a smashed termite mound!
The forest is FULL of guenons too, but who knows for how long considering all the dead guenons I’ve seen hanging from bikes in the last 24 hours alone...
We returned back to Difongo in the midst of a bit of an incident!
Two armed men we’d encountered along the road previously and had assumed were hunters were in fact the sole two members of an anti-bushmeat squad.
They had stopped in Difongo to see us and had apprehended a hunter who had been passing by with some illegal meat.
With the help of Polycarpe (who is the eternal diplomat), they were trying to explain to this man the error of his ways.
And of course like any other official we’ve encountered here, he had his ratty little folder of Congolese-flag-decorated documents, and a dirty little plastic bag holding some very fragile and enormous reading glasses (and the required scowl on his face).
Thankfully, the scowl wasn’t for us!
With at least 6 near fights as they confiscated the hunter’s meat, it was quite a ruckus!
Considering all that’s transpired today already, I’m ready for some lunch and a nap!
It rained heavily in the night, but Adam had picked a perfect spot for the tent, on a slight downward angle, so that all the rain just washed right past us.
It was, however, extremely cold! The price of being in the forest, I guess!
This does seem like prime chimp habitat, though, I’m told, the bigger chimp populations are still quite far off and we’ll probably more from Difongo tomorrow to a camp we’ll make deeper in the forest.
The hunting levels here are unbelievable -- apparently the hunters I saw yesterday also passed by Polycarpe on his bicycle and asked him if he’d seen military, because they had elephant meat hidden in their bundles.
It least in this case it was the military protecting the elephants instead of hunting and eating them themselves!! (though I can guess what would happen to any meat “confiscated”...)
The elephant situation here does seem dire, though. I’m told as little as 7 years ago, you couldn’t travel the road we did today from Likati without encountering an elephant or a group of them!
It will make me look even harder into the bundles carried past me in bicycle caravans!
I’m told too that there is a market 50km from here, over the river, where there are no rules and the meats of elephant, okapi, and chimpanzees are sold indiscriminately.
We’ll definitely try to check THAT out, but for now, chimp poop is the priority.
At least we got the BGAN working today, so we could post a blog entry (and email my worried mother) to let them know we’d arrived safely.
We’ve never had serious problems with the BGAN in Aketi, so leave it to the jungle for it to flake, and then restart itself at a third power instead of full power.
With luck it’ll hold out for 2 more uses, but I’m not counting on it!
regard to the BGAN, our internet source, which refused to give us
signal yesterday after months of consistent usage in Aketi, then
restarted itself and began again at 1/3rd power instead of full power.
But we made it to Difongo, and might move to another camp deeper in
the forest tomorrow or Tuesday.
We are safe, and happy. Sorry if we worried people by being unable to
go online yesterday (like my mom) but there was nothing we could do
It's already starting off being a wonderful adventure (though wow, we
are seeing a LOT of elephant meat) -- more next Sunday!
Sunday, February 15, 2009
It’s felt a bit like a reverse fraternity hazing, being battered on either side by the trees as the “road” continued to get narrower and narrower.
This is really wild country! with the exception of one mile marker at 16km from Likati, there is no evidence that anyone was ever hree, let alone colonists.
The villages we pass reflect their isolation -- there are no trappings of big city life here-- no brightly colored plastic buckets or daintily flowered ceramic cooking casseroles. In lieu of commercial wares, there are smoothly carved wooden bowls, large and blackened by fire.
Though we see some goats, we also pass at least 20 hunters. They aren’t always obvious -- at first I believed them to be carrying pick-axes, but they were actually carrying rudimentary crossbows.
I searched in vain for evidence of chimp hunting, but the meat was most often hidden with bundles of things.
But the smell .... that rancid, rotting smell of freshly smoked meat -- is always the giveaway and lingered even far behind the hunters’ paths.
Thankfully today’s trip was short -- only 45km -- and the time passed quickly as I found myself absorbed in the wild beauty of this less-disturbed forest.
Having arrived in Difongo, I am eager to begin the work! I was delighted to find that Adam had already set up the tent, and we are surrounded by the sounds of monkeys and bireds.
There’s a big mine too, close to here, so perhaps tomorrow we will walk over to check it out!
I awoke from my nap to the sound of what I thought -- or rather, hoped -- was the distant rumble of a motorcycle engine.
The 7 am church service this morning had only ended around 12:30pm, but even emerging from the room then, I was barraged by exiting parishioners, smiling and stil ever-curious about my every step!
Now, however, the grounds and surrounding roads are empty, motionless as everyone has already scrambled inside, bracing themselves for the impending rain.
Little scares me out here, but waiting here at this cathedral, alone, not knowing anything as I watch a hawk barely staying aloft amidst the gusting winds --
I am anxious.
Seba left with Adam at 8am, and the the voyage, at worst, was to take 3 hours.
Where is he? What happened??
Time flies, whether you’re having fun or not. but it’s been a good stay here at the cathedral. We’ve vacillated between busy to so calm that the trip nearly feels like a vacation!
We bought our bulk supplies yesterday, though this is such serious mine country that essentials like rice had already been bought out by miners! It took hours of waiting at the rice machine just to get some!
Adam and I nearly forgot too that it was Valentine’s Day! It wasn’t until I scrawled the date in my notebook to write the day’s expenses that we realized.
Surreptitiously, he snuck out by the toilets with his utility knife to the flowers that grow from between the old bricks there -- and cut me one.
Like no Valentine’s Day we’ve ever had (or will probably have again!) -- the sentiment was absolutely perfect.
We’re really almost there now -- everyone else left this morning by moto and bike and I’ll remain here, in our room, hiding from gawking children.
I’m not sure where they all come from, but they seriously creep up on you like Ninja Cat! Only when you turn around and look at them directly do they hide or flee, and every time you turn around they’re about 3 feet closer to you!!
There aren’t just kids here -- the charity of the mission attracts all sorts of crazies and weirdos who are at once so pitiful and so ridiculous that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
We were accosted my first day here by one such man who worse a huge cowboy had, had a shirt with only one sleeve, and wanted to debate the finer points of catholicism with us, all while having an enormous booger hanging from his nose.
A sadder tale was that of an ancient woman who hobbles around the grounds here, asking for coffee. She relayed a bit of her life and explained that, although her husband and children were in Buta, she was alone in Likati.
It eventually prompted a whole discussion of old age with Polycarpe, as I queried why this woman was alone, uncared for and essentially, abandoned.
I had always just assumed that the old in agrarian societies were looked after until their deaths, but apparently, if you live past a certain age (e.g. 65), people start looking at you skeptically. Additionally, if you are unable to work, there is only so long that your family will put up with you and feed you until they throw you out!
In effect, you are punished for living too long. Polycarpe also explained that people begin to believe sorcery is involved past a certain age, and it is not at all uncommon for children to throw rocks at abandoned elderly or beat them with sticks.
As horrible as all of this sounds, what was worse was that Polycarpe could not stop laughing as he relayed this information to me.
Already a man of nearly 50, I asked him what he would do in 10 years, at 60.
He replied, still laughing, that he’d just have to hide in his house! The gruesomeness just seemed to be lost on him -- and Seba both!
It’s just such an odd contrast -- while people in America are afraid to die, people here in DRC are afraid to live too long!
Thursday, February 12, 2009
What a difference a season makes! Passing through the road towards Dulia - the road we battled with so valiantly to GET to Aketi - was this time, a breeze.
What had been huge mudfields were now dry leafy brown expanses. Former sloshy lakes were caked brown gullies. Even the high grass that had flanked narrow winding rivers had been cut, and the rivers, dried.
We had explained to Seba my fear of traversing the old Belgian train bridges (at least by foot), which is why we’d chosen “the difficult road” -- windier, rougher, but shorter with, I thought, fewer bridge crossings.
Imagine my surprise when we approached the very bridge I’d been so eager to avoid!
Thankfully, I had the fortune to stay on the moto this time, and, though heart-racing, it passed nearly too quickly to take pictures!
After a long respite, moto-riding didn’t seem so bad. At Komba, 25km from Aketi, we turned off the familiar road towards Buta. The road became narrowers, and at its left-most periphery, punctuated by the perpendicular metal supports of a set of ancient railroad tracks.
It seemed so much cooler outside of Aketi. The forest beckoned to me through its tangled mass of green and I breathed in deeply and felt revived.
My free spirit was not to long-lived as we came upon another ancient railroad bridge, less grand than my nemesis, and in far worse shape!!
I told Seba I would stay on the bike, but he told me, No, it was too dangerous.
Not at all reassuring for my confidence in this bridge’s stability!!
I mustered my courage and took my first step... onto a metal slat nearly rusted through that proceeded to wobble fiercely. My foot recoiled involuntarily and I became uncontrollably afraid.
A local man danced easily from one stable point to the next and extended his hand to me, which I took gratefully.
Another bridge crossed!!! ... Yet Seba said it was not the last!!
I didn’t start to feel the dull aches of pain until we’d gone about 60km, but I was sustained by the thought of seeing Adam again. 38km felt like nothing, especially after having traveled 500km in our first voyage from Kisangani!
But the ride did drag on as I continually had to dismount each time the road changed sides of the tracks and we were forced to lug the bike over them again and again.
Biting my lip, I ignored the shaky throbbing pain in my legs and rear, until Seba asked me to get off in order to cross the last bridge.
High above the very shallow river below, the bridge must have once ported huge trainloads -- but now the only remnants still solid were the narrow eyebeams on either side.
A tiny girl in broken flip-flops with a huge jerry can balanced on her head picked her way along an eyebeam, through the web of round bolt heads like an expert acrobat.
And here I was, paralyzed and lame.
Many of the metal ties between the tracks had fallen away, leaving me disturbingly clear views of the river below!
After several failed starts in front of a crowd of apparently fearless girls, Seba dismounted to come over and give me a hand.
Behind me, disgusted, an ancient tiny woman pushed past us with an enormous bundle of firewood on her head.
I took my cues from Seba on where to step, but after watching the instability of the center pieces under his feet, I moved towards the eyebeams, and, one foot in front of the other, Seba’s hand in mine, I channeled my inner tightrope walker and made it to the other side.
Seba went back to come across again with the moto -- and as I snapped photos of the wheels gallumping through the holey center channel (and spinning fruitlessly i the especially large holes), I hoped that they wouldn’t be the last photos taken of Seba!
But he made it! And, 30 minutes later, so did we... to the town of Likati.
Likati is quite a large town, but has a completely different feel than Aketi.
Sprawling and flat, it has none of the huge crowded mansions of Aketi, menacing one another in close proximity with tumbling bricks fro their crumbling, dilapidated exteriors.
Likati has mostly thatched mud huts, but many wide roads and side streets. We’re staying at the edge of town in an enormous brick cathedral.
The room is small but robust, and we’d never complain about our small twin bed for sharing, since poor Polycarpe is relegated to sleeping on the floor! But there are indeed bats in the <s>belfry</s> roof!
We lent Polycarpe one of our two sleeping bags to “cushion the blow,” as it were... but the night still passed for us all peacefully, ensconced in the darkness of the cathedral.
On a humorous note, the toilets here, quite nice pit latrines with stalls and doors and seats, are a bit far away from the main residence and, in the black night, the uneven formerly cobblestoned ground is difficult to navigate, even WITH a flashlight!
And yes, I did tumble -- there is nothing quite like falling with your pants half down, your full moon illuminated by the full moon!
At church, too!
Today we buy provisions and head too into the town to document the FOUR (!!) chimpanzee orphans we have heard are living here!
Kathé, one of our six, comes from Likati. It does confirm for us the heavy density of chimpanzees in the forests just north of here, between here and Angu... at least for now!
quarantine period away from the other chimpanzees to ensure both his
safety and theirs!! Then he'll join the other chimpanzees at the
We hope when we return from the forest to find him healthy, and so
far, he's doing quite well. He's got a good appetite and good spirit
(though he slept last night for nearly 11 hours!!)
I barely slept last night, concerned about the upcoming forest trip and getting everything done, and just hoping that the IRB committee doesn’t find some other thing I haven’t done that I must, impossibly, complete from 10,000 miles away in the jungle.
It also didn’t help that the bed was mostly empty!
The EXCITING news is that I found a cat, a tiny kitten, in the front garden yesterday while Adam’s advanced karate assistants were teaching basic moves to the local kids. She was in sort of rough shape, and very very tiny, but very friendly and I picked her up and got her purring in no time.
She slept in the bed with me during the night and was immensely reassuring. I’ve asked the people staying here to please watch out for her while I’m gone, so I really hope she’s still here when I get back. She’s curled up by our kitchen fire right now outside so there’s a chance, but hey... it’s Congo.
The second excellent good piece of news is that the motorcycle driver did NOT flake out and actually left Likati during the evening and slept along the road and got here just 10 minutes ago!
Adam made it to Likati in one piece and apparently the roads were pretty bad but the whole trip only took 3+ hours. Very encouraging (though mostly encouraging solely for the news of Adam)
So, to reiterate, we’ll be posting a journal entry every Sunday to let people know we’re okay but there will be little other news...
I promised my mom too that we’d start THIS Sunday, so talk to you all then!
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
I can’t believe just how much has happened today, and how much more I still have to do in order to get my revised IRB in by the 12th deadline.
Seba should be back here by noon tomorrow to get me ... it doesn’t leave much time!
Congo’s timing can sometimes mock you. Preparing for the forest, blasting music as I loaded sample tubes into my bag and a book to read at night in our little green tent, nothing could have been further from my mind than suffering and cruelty.
Which is why, when Richard came to me and told me there was another orphan up the road, I nearly didn’t believe it. I wished we hadn’t delayed our leaving. Not because I didn’t care about the orphan (because I obviously do), but because seeing new orphans always brings a fresh wave of heartbreak, as though one’s heart had never been broken before.
It never gets any easier. It only gets harder.
I also wasn’t sure what we could possibly do for this orphan -- I always mandate quarantine, but we were about to leave the house empty and guardian-less. I’d never in a million years send a new orphan to the sanctuary, and additionally, all of our transfer papers for the end of March were already completed with the manifest listing five chimpanzee orphans. Not six.
But you do what you have to do.
The man who had “seized” this orphan, who was actually with the police, and had taken him from a camp near SIFORCO, which is a huge logging concession nearly 100km from here. Part of my research includes data about how logging and mining concessions do terrible things for conservation, increasing the levels of bushmeat hunting and its requisite cost - forest orphans.
Unfortunately, though I explained to the police officer that keeping chimp orphans was against the law and that, if we decided that our sanctuary could take this orphan, it would be without payment, he continued to ask me “what the price” would be.
Finally frustrated, we told him we would bring him an answer tomorrow. It was, after all, already late -- nearly 6 pm -- and we had many things to arrange.
At home, we talked about the options, and decided that, instead of hiring our sanctuary sentinel to guard our house during the night and do double duty (I presume without sleep), we would install our two employees who are married, one of whom is a chimp guardian at the sanctuary, to stay at the house, guard the house, and also take care of the baby during his quarantine period.
It seemed like a good solution, and for worry-warts, all the bedrooms would be locked up regardless so even blatant blundering couldn’t have that much of a cost...
With my confidence in Djodjo’s chimp mothering abilities (he’s really quite remarkable), the only thing I’d ever worry about would be the house. The orphan would be in great hands!
This morning, Seba and Adam packed up the back of the moto and I sent Djodjo and Richard to retrieve the baby. Everything else just seemed like logistics at that point.
When they returned, empty-handed, I assumed only that the proprietors of the chimp had demanded money, and sighed with the expectation of further haggling and bullshit.
But Richard’s eyes were glassy, and he radiated consternation as he inhaled deeply on his cigarette, nearly smoking the filter.
“They ate him,” he said in French.
A simple enough phrase to translate, my brain still refused to believe its English equivalent.
My knees nearly dropped from under me. Too late. He’d just been alive, pant-hooting yesterday as we’d taken pictures of his solemn, amber eyes and his wizened little face.
And now he rested in the stomachs of two policemen -- men entrusted with enforcing Congolese laws --
--- laws that include the protection of chimpanzees.
The day darkened, and I barely heard as Richard explained that the Captain had been furious with the men, and had docked their pay. But none of it mattered.
We could have taken him last night, and we didn’t, and now we never could again.
I absorbed myself with the logistics, fighting off tears.
“We should tell Damien we’ll need him again,” I said, “and go back to the original plan.”
I sat down to write a journal entry, wondering how many chimp bodies I’d be forced to count in my relatively short stay here.
Looking out the front door, I saw a man approach, careful to avoid the huge mud in the yard from the previous night’s tremendous rainfall.
...I recognized him... from our police karate class and he approached me and spilt Lingala out in such a rapid pace that I had to hold him by the shoulder to stop him for enough time to tell him I didn’t understand.
Gracia and Beya came out, and translated for me.
“He says you and Adam need to come to the police station,” translated Gracia. “He says that the baby is there, not dead.”
Confusion swept over me, and then over Adam, and I wasn’t sure what to think other than that I should be extremely wary. Sure we’d been teaching the police karate for nearly a month now, but being summoned to the police station is never something that should be taken lightly.
We brought Djodjo with us and walked delicately through the mud, when, on the road some hundred yards from the police station, we heard a chimp screaming.
Our pace quickened, and upon arrival at the police station we found the two men originally accused of eating the baby (by their own admission), along with every other policeman in the station.
We also saw the captain and the lieutenant, the latter of whom has always been very genteel with us and is eager to please in karate classes.
I asked the lieutenant who it had been who had spread the lie about the baby being eaten, and the lieutenant tried to convince me that it was just an assumption that Richard had made, that no one had actually said so.
Apparently even the parameters of friendship do not exclude flagrant lies in Congo.
He explained to me that the men who had seized the chimp had used gas, and had given the baby food, and wasn’t it only right that I give them a whole bunch of money.
So, in French (which even in retrospect was not perfect but still very compelling), I explained to him that, by our very strict policy we only ever gave primes of $1 for the finding of a chimpanzee orphan.
And that, even if they used gas and were honorable men, if I gave them the money for their trouble that they asked for, the many witnesses at the police station would certainly tell their wives, who would tell their neighbours, who would tell their friends, who would tell their neighbours, and soon, the entire town of Aketi would be buzzing about all the money that the whites had paid for a baby chimpanzee.
Looking him directly in the eyes, entreatingly willing him to understand, he was clearly unhappy, but conceded that I had a very valid point.
He beckoned for one of his men to cut the cord attaching the baby to the pole outside of the door to the prison, and Djodjo picked up the baby while Adam severed the cord tied around the baby’s waist.
We spoke a bit about the next Jujitsu class, and picked a path through the mud back to our home.
Djodjo is with little Souza now (the name he was given by his captors). The police, while seizing the infant, did nothing to the hunters who killed his mother, but little Souza Siforco might hopefully have a happier ending.
It will mean a lot of work, but if we can save one more life, it will be worth it.
Pictures to follow.
Addendum: I confirmed with Djodjo that it had in fact been one of the policemen who had confessed to the baby’s killing and eating, and when he described the man Adam and I knew him from the classes immediately.
We don’t know why the lie was started, except perhaps to emotionally extort us into giving money to the captain. It obviously didn’t work, but I guess overall, the idea behind it is no less upsetting.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
am really excited about this trip and what we might find in the
forest. We hope to get all of our samples and see some wild chimps.
Of course, this means I will be out of contact for a while. My guess
is between two to four weeks.
Also, I am excited on the amount of French that I have learned and the
ability to ask for basic things and have simple conversations.
Sometimes I get French and English mixed up when I talk or I have to
pause to remember a French word. Either way, I am improving.
I am excited for the trip and after this, we will have a month left in
Congo. Talk to you later.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
For the super curious, the GPS points are:
As our survey team also saw a lot of evidence of elephants there, (though unfortunately a lot of chimpanzee orphans too) it should be a trip that yields a lot of new information for us.
Likati is about 80 kilometres from our town of Aketi, and our three main guys will be heading out by bicycle this coming Tuesday to arrive and set up camp.
Adam will be heading out with Seba via motorcycle on Wednesday, and Seba will be back on Thursday to come and collect me. It’ll be the first real time since we’ve come to Congo that Adam and I will be separated, and, with no way to check up on the other, it’s a bit terrifying.
It could be too that I’m really just not looking forward to traversing the bridge that separates us from Likati again -- the bridge that nearly gave me a heart attack last time we crossed it -- I expect I’ll stay on the back of the motorcycle this time instead of crossing by foot but not knowing where Adam is or how he is doing for a day here, considering the possible options of things that can go wrong... oof!
Here are our motorcycle drivers on the original trip to Aketi, crossing a particularly ancient, rusty, and unstable bridge.
Which I will, in a few days, have to cross again!!
I am, however, extremely looking forward to being in the forest again. There’s something refreshingly simple about tent life. Sure, it’s a bit smelly and sometimes messy, but overall there is just so much less to worry about.
I’ll be collecting chimpanzee feces from night nests, both on the ground and potentially some tree-nights as well. There is also the opportunity to find chimpanzee feces underneath nests so we’ll probably be in the forest for 2-3 weeks until I get all 20 samples that I’ll need for a good sample size.
We’ve been busy getting things ready on this end. We can thankfully buy lots of our provisions IN Likati, so we won’t have to port them all the whole distance, but certain things we must buy here, like cans of tomato paste and onions and spices for our BOUNTY OF BEANS, that we will eat for nearly every meal for the entire rest of February!
On the communication front, you probably won’t hear a lot from us during the rest of February. We obviously aren’t bringing the generator into the forest, but we’ll bring the BGAN for emergencies and Adam’s computer, since it’s lighter and more portable. We’ll try to post a “we’re alive” entry once a week, most likely on Sundays again, but that’ll be it. Not only will we not really have access to email, but I’m told (and could have guessed that) my cellphone will not have reception.
We’ll be online probably one or two more times before Wednesday to wrap everything businessy up -- so if you have questions or anything, make it quick! Hehe.
Against Hunger, and the Lebanese salesman. As you have read from
Laura's blog, the French lady stood us up at the bar but, we met
Kasim, the Lebanese gentleman who is here. He get goods such as olive
oil, vegetable oil, othe foods and goods from major cities in Congo to
here in Aketi. We went to his house, watched Aljezeera in English,
watch Iron Man on his TV and ate eggs cook with onions and vegetable
oil. This is the first time that we have had olive oil since we
arrived in Aketi. It was so good, I went to Kasim's house the next
morning and bought five liters of vegetable oil for nearly $20. It
was expensive but the egg sandwich that I had for breakfast was
awesome. It was cooked in vegetable oil with onions and a hot pepper
grown here called pili-pili. It was the closest thing to American
food that I have had here. Which I think is a good thing since I have
lost a lot of weight while here in Congo (eating natural foods without
chemicals is great!).
Anyways, Laura and I are really excited about our upcoming forest
trip. It will be nice to be in the wild again and see all of the
different animals again. Of course, we will be begging for a bath
when we come back.
It has been exciting with the new people and the new cafe in town.
For now Laura and I are doing fine and having a good time. Until next
And I think the thing that baffles us the most is just how different his life is here, or maybe how different his standard of life is here from ours.
He’s been in the area for a year and a half already, but he’s not going crazy or slipping on banana peels or counting chimp carcasses and going slowly insane. Which is basically what we’ve all been doing here, reveling in what little glimpses of our “normal” lives we get while trying to just get through to the next day... and the next challenge.
After I fixed his computer and internet 2 days ago, he showed us around his house and his garden, taking extra time to show us his extra stocked kitchen, and even gifted us with a huge bottle of <gasp> OLIVE OIL.
As a commerçant, these things just come easily to him since he is already importing things into Aketi and the surrounding towns. He can’t imagine wanting for anything, though he and Adam did have a heated discussion about the wonderfulness of the cheeseburger.
We went to his house last night to watch Iron Man on his big television, but beforehand we got to watch some television!! He runs their huge group twice a day, every day, at noon and then during the whole night.
He and his girlfriend, Fatua, run an air conditioner at night. He eats laughing cow cheese and fresh olives and pita bread he made himself for breakfast.
They watch TV every night. He has non-BGAN internet (as slow as it may be).
And as we sat watching Iron Man without having to strain to hear over the sound of a cheap generator, some of his employees were sent out with bricks of cash. Probably as much money as Adam and I have spent since we arrived in Aketi nearly five months ago. He just brought them out like they were bricks made of brick. Stacked them together on the table, counted them succinctly, and then these guys took this huge pile of cash away.
Of course, even in the well-lit, electric-fanned luxury of Kassim’s house, the problems of Congo were not all that far away. And we did laugh when, halfway through the film, the generator crapped out and we sat in complete darkness, the only break in the total black the cherry orange glow of Kassim’s fancy imported Pall Mall cigarette.
(We were well prepared, of course, being used to the darkness of night, and pulled our flashlights from my purse)
Though there are certainly enviable aspects of Kassim’s life here, riding on the back of his company motorcycles at 10:30pm when we headed home (he refused to let us walk through town at night) I realized that perhaps our life here is different from his but there are things that I can come to appreciate here that I doubt he ever will.
I guess first and most important is that anyone trying to imitate Western life here in Aketi is always going to come up short and feel like something is lacking.
But additionally, by keeping that separation -- between himself and employees, or himself and local culture -- I can’t imagine that he can ever really know what Congo is like. He’s never eaten or enjoyed poondoo, or gone to the market himself, or had wonderful conversations with his staff about the beauty of the forest.
And especially on the “eve” of our extended forest voyage, I realize that in a way our closeness to real life here gives us a much different perspective, but not necessarily a diminished perspective. I love the relationships we have with our local friends here, and just how simple our lives are here does shine light on, perhaps, things in our old lives that may have been superfluous.
Not to say that cheese for breakfast wouldn’t augment my life here considerably more into the positive, of course (hehe) -- but these last two days have certainly given me some food for thought.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
While chatting with our friend Kassim, man of Infinite Means, we discovered that we could have flown from Kisangani to Bomba, a town only 200km from here and also accessible by river.
There is apparently a weekly flight that leaves on Sundays and is “not expensive.”
We discovered this while relaying our horror story of coming to Aketi via motorcycle for six days through mud and hell. We’d been told that the flights with Aviation Sans Frontiers (Flights without Borders) were all booked up and that our sponsors hadn’t planned early enough, but who knows if they even knew about these other flights!
I think in retrospect that it was, certainly, an adventure that we’re glad we had. But it would have been nice to have been given the option of flying!
(In other news, there are apparently many other things we’re “missing out on” here in Aketi that are available that we didn’t even know about! More to come!)
Friday, February 6, 2009
Which makes me realize that, in English, their acronym is AAH! tee hee
We were so jazzed about some new mondeles in town that we planned to walk up to the Cathedral to visit them, only to find the female half already at the ATE’s office, presumably completing the piles of paperwork and files that is part of the Mondele Rigamarole that we too went through upon arrival.
So, we introduced ourselves, discovered that she spoke English (much to Adam’s delight), and offered to come and get her later in the day to bring her to our new “bar” for some cold beers and sodas.
She gratefully accepted, and we excitedly went home, having evening plans ... something completely novel for us!
After karate, Adam walked up to the bar and I took the moto with Seba up to the cathedral. 5 pm! “Nighttime”! But the French was still working, and told us she’d meet us at the bar at 6:30. Sure!
Arriving at the café, we discovered that Papa B, our friendly but pushily extortive official, had invited himself along and had already put a beer on our tab. But it was fine, and we brought along Polycarpe, our fantastic assistant chief of the project. It was indeed a night to celebrate.
While at the bar, Papa B asked us why we hadn’t invited the Lebanese guy in town whom I have frequently referenced for his ingenuity for making money here in Aketi.
And honestly, I wasn’t sure.
I mean, he’s been here as long as we have, and we see him zooming by on his motorcycle every day and yet we’ve never, ever said hello.
So I said, “Use my phone! Invite him!”
Kassim showed up maybe twenty minutes later, which is more than I can say for the French.
Adam and I decided that maybe she got caught up in work and had no way to contact us and just forgot that she could have sent someone along to let us know she wasn’t coming. We’re trying not to just say “Ah well, that’s The French.”
Anyway, Kassim showed up and we all chatted until very “late” into the night!! That is, after 9 pm! He was having problems with his computer so I offered to come by the next day and fix them, and we exchanged telephone numbers.
It was indeed exciting to have a new friend, and we’re looking forward to tomorrow
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Today is the first time I’ve had any beer since November of 2008. And when I got up from a squat, what a head rush! And I’ve only drunk half a Primus!
How in the world will I reacclimate to hopping New York life one day?
extremely close -- Mangé, one of our sanctuary chimpanzees, became
very ill earlier this week and had to be separated from the rest of
the chimpanzees at the sanctuary to be given some extra attention,
food and medicine.
Polycarpe, his original surrogate mother from the time of his
confiscation, cared for him again, and it is easy to see how pleased
they are to be together again!
Disclaimer: Chimpanzees shown here are not pets, nor should they be
considered as such. Chimpanzees are wild animals that belong in the
forest, and the pet trade fuels a vicious cycle of wild chimpanzee
slaughter and abuse. Chimps shown here are orphans and must be taken
care of in a sanctuary environment that mimics as best it can the
natural environment of chimpanzees and attempts to minimize the trauma
already inflicted on the infants.
Chimpanzees do NOT make good pets. They are wild animals, unmanageable
in a domestic setting, strong and willful and dangerous. For more
information, please visit:
goat! I wonder if having a goat in front of your dish impacts your
reception of channels!
(Sorry if this one is hard to see in small version! We'll upload a
bigger version when we don't have bandwidth restrictions anymore)
Not only does he practice karate all the time on his own, but when a
piece of the tree next to his family's house fell down, he spent all
morning cutting it up into little pieces to sell as firewood!
He climbs our tree all the time to pick apples too!
Firstly, last week, a man came by with a a bottle of what was advertised as motor oil.
Olivier tried to explain to me to me what it was, but failed to mention a crucial word in French that I’d be sure to know...
Bees! It was HONEY! But honestly, like no honey I’ve ever tasted.
Unlike most other Americans, our standard idea of honey does not come in a plastic jar shaped like a bear.
We’ve had “real” honey -- made by local bees at our local Renaissance Festival.
I think we’d both say, though, that this honey still tasted completely different from any we’d ever had before!
Imagine, if you will, a mixture of fresh honey with mulled apple cider -- spicy, and smooth, and still very sweet and tangy.
Really just amazing! And $2 for a HUGE bottle. Which, <sheepishly> we have already finished.
We received our 3 month stipend this week too -- and the man who brought us the money from Buta, a larger town about 150km south of here, also brought us some confiture -- JAM. Which, because it’s probably imported from somewhere near Kenya and their Brits, is actually mincemeat. Few people know that mincemeat rarely has meat in it anymore, but is instead a collection of fruit and spices and orange and lemon rinds (though some ingredients still use beef).
Thankfully, this mincemeat was BEEF-FREE, and sure, it was $6 a jar, but to taste something like that again with our locally made bread ... HEAVEN! (In case it wasn’t obvious, there is absolutely no jam (and nothing like it) here in Aketi)
Lastly, we’ve mentioned before some enterprising Lebanese entrepreneurs who came to Aketi maybe 1.5 years ago. And, we’ve also mentioned that everything that comes here has traditionally been coming by road, on the backs of bikes or motos.
We passed dozens of guys bringing beers and sodas to Aketi on the winding jungle paths, the distinctive clinky clinky clinky sound of the bottles rattling together is always a dead giveaway.
Especially during the dry season when the big barges can’t go down the river from bigger cities, the “road” is really is the only way of getting stuff here!
Well, perhaps with a semi-selfish motive, the Lebanese commerçants strapped some pierogis together with an outboard motor and zoooom! -- beers and sodas have come here much more easily (and cheaply!)
But who likes hot beer? So, though there is no electricity in Aketi - no sanitation systems and half the days our neighbour kids go to school they come home because the teachers didn’t show up -- there is now a bar.
And the bar... <dramatic pause> has COLD BEER. <Sidenote> And cold soda.
But cold beer!? Really!? During the dry season it has been over 100º every day, languishing, humid sticky heat with no respite!
Today, however, we will quench our thirst AND douse ourselves in luxury, and spend 1800FC (~$3) each and drink some cold beer while we internet.
What a great way to start the month!
Monday, February 2, 2009
We've been enlisted by the local police of Aketi to train their
(slightly deranged) officers some good defensive techniques!
Though some of them are a bit slow on the pickup (mostly the parts
that require discipline) some of them are really quite enthusiastic
In the lower photo, the large man on the left is the Commandant of the
police, and the guy in the light blue jumpsuit is his Lieutenant.
Also, Laura and I were in the market yesterday when a woman came up to Laura and started dancing. Laura started dancing with her and it caused a riot. All the children were so excited to see a red-headed white woman dancing, some thing that they probably never seen. It was pretty amazing.
Until next time.
We know the people along the road, and they call our names and wish us good days.
Also, even with our staff back from their forest trips, it takes ten times as long to send our go-to guy anywhere.
I’m guessing it’s because he usually goes to a bunch of other places to chat and hang out with his friends whenever we send him out.
So, mornings when we haven’t planned ahead and pre-bought the day’s food, we walk very early in the morning, 8am-ish, over to the market about a mile away. The sun hasn’t yet come out in full force, and it’s nice and sometimes even cool!
Yesterday, one of the hottest days in recent memory, we thankfully didn’t need to go to the market, but as 5pm crept up on us and our favorite Bread Girl had yet to come to the house, we took matters into our own hands and walked down to the market to get some bread.
I don’t think we’ve ever been to the market as late as 5:30pm, and after yesterday, I don’t think we will again!
Firstly, it was a lot more crowded, but most of the people there didn’t know us already like our early-morning crew so we got a lot of crazy calls of “MONDELE!” (Lingala for ‘whitey’) and people begging us for money and sugar and food really really persistently.
We were thankfully “saved” somewhat by this deaf beggar at the market, who shooed away other beggars with this EXTREMELY high pitched cooing sound -- I don’t even know if I can adequately describe it but if you can imagine Mickey Mouse as a mean policeman, it might come close.
But people were, for the most part, happy and there was music playing from a nearby shopkeeper’s stand. A woman next to me started dancing in a traditional Congolese way (which as I described to my mother as basically standing with your arms outstretched and alternately bending each of your knees to sort of jiggle your butt) ---
so I started to dance with her!
Oh my GOD the ruckus, as everyone in the market clamored over one another to get a look at me dancing and there was an eruption of sound and frenzy -- and, while Adam just thought it was “really cool” I’ll admit to being a bit terrified! It was like being in the center of a happy riot, and suddenly we were surrounding at every angle and every elevation by faces, and eyes, all fixed on us.
It was complete chaos, and “Momma”, an easygoing woman who sells us rice every morning, had to swing a large stick just to part the crowd of hundreds so we could get out of the market.
Ooo la la!
Sunday, February 1, 2009
At around 9 pm last night, two of the caregivers from the sanctuary came to the house carrying Mangé, who, to remind you, was confiscated last summer and integrated into the sanctuary community this past December.
Mangé had had a cold two weeks ago, and had been given medicine and had recovered.
Or at least we thought! Some part of his cold had moved to his lungs, so he was sort of wheezing and coughing, but it was clear that it was a really dry cough.
Polycarpe, Mangé’s surrogate mother during his long quarantine period, seemed extremely worried, and we all huddled in the dark living room, illuminated only by the weak glow of our substandard Chinese flashlights.
The air was so chill that I wasn’t sure whether I was tense with cold or tense with worry, but seeing Polycarpe holding Mangé so tight, swathed in a blanket, while Mangé’s head lolled around and they tried to give him some honey --- of course I was reminded of Akuma Cleveland, and my heart sank even further.
Mangé had been a fighter-- a success story -- who no one thought would live when he was taken in last year. Akuma may have given up, but Mangé hadn’t, and the thought of losing him - or any of the other chimps, was more than I could bear.
Because of the late hour, the pharmacy was closed (and is also closed on Sundays) so we made due with what we had -- and because I’ve also been prone to bronchial problems since having whooping cough in Uganda, I had some bronchial expectorant pills that we quartered and then ground up in a spoonful of water.
One of my chief concerns in taking over this project was the health of the chimpanzees. There are certain extremely strict procedures we follow to keep the chimps from getting sick (especially with regard to limited exposure to human pathogens), but once they GET sick, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose and treat them.
Before I knew we would be sending the chimps to another location that already has an on-site vet, I was working on getting veterinary care out here, because it really is just that important.
Mangé threw up in the night, and the three of us stayed up very late, monitoring him and listening for improvements in his breathing.
I am happy to report today, at 3 pm, Mangé is already back on his feet and feeling much better after another 2 treatments of the bronchial medicine.
The danger is over, and I couldn’t be more relieved, but it does impress upon me ever more that pushing through the next two months might not just be “that easy”...