Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Final Distance

It’s now been two weeks since I crossed the border from Goma, DRC to Gisenyi, Rwanda.

It feels like a hundred years ago, and it’s no wonder that, sitting in comfort at the JGI house in Entebbe, that I’m loathe to recount our hurried journey out of Congo.

But here we go.


Touching down at Kavumu airport outside of Bukavu was like a dream. We’d made it, and though Aketi Kigoma had screamed through the last hour of the flight, refusing to be comforted, the rest of the chimps seemed calm.

We’d given Kathé our water bottles to play with, mostly to distract her from untying the various ropes and vines we’d used to repair her cage, and she was in a zen place, unscrewing and rescrewing the cap to her heart’s content.

Bolungwa and Django were sleeping, though one of them had felt the need to relieve themselves during the flight. Small plane with five chimps and four people, sharing the ventilation system with a dook? Always a good time.

ICCN was at the airport to meet us, along with about 40 other people who all proceeded to introduce themselves to me as I tried to keep my wits about me and make sure that all of our belongings were offloaded and that the chimps were okay.

I got to meet Ainare, the interim manager of Lwiro, who supervised loading the chimps into the pick-ups. Both she and I were unhappy by the number of people insisting on clustering around the chimps, so we tried to move as quickly as possible. To keep Kathé from attempting any escape maneuvers in the bed of the pick-up, Ainare, a vet, tranqed her and Adam and I were hustled to the airport DGM’s office.

I felt extremely bad that there was chimp poop in the MAF plane, but had absolutely nothing to clean it up with. I only hoped Joey and Jon could forgive us!

Adam went first to the DGM’s while I handled the last few logistical things on the tarmac before joining him, only to discover that he was already encountering problems. It was here too on the tarmac that I learned by phone of our staff’s arrest, and of the warrant that had been issued for Adam.

What should have felt like a purely exuberant day of success was already feeling more like a bad film.

Inside the airport DGM’s office, the immigration chief was questioning the visas we had obtained in Buta in January. We’d been issued ATLP’s, which, according to him, weren’t valid unless our passports were sent to Kinshasa to be issued actual visas. None of this, of course, had been told to us when we got the “visas,” which were listed in Bukavu as a $45 document (but for which we had paid $150 per person). We had a receipt, and technically the ATLPs were due to expire on the 2nd of April, but he angrily insisted that we were in the country illegally and was very firm on his plan of taking us to the bigwig DGM in Bukavu this very minute, with police escorts.

As you can imagine, this was the last thing we needed, but, additionally, Kathé’s knockout was only going to last so long and we were now under a time constraint to get back to the Sanctuary before she woke up.

Ainare convinced the DGM that we would return after depositing the chimps, and that, in return, he could hold onto our passports.

I am, in general, extremely reluctant to let go of my passport but I’d rather go without my passport for 1.5 hours than have Kathé wake up in the back of the pickup truck and freak out.

So off we went. I remember being in sort of a trauma-haze, worrying about our guys in jail, and trying to figure out my next move, all while sitting in the flatbed of the second pickup with the other four chimps - Aketi, Mangé, Django and Bo - trying to reassure them as we bounced and jostled through the rough volcanic-rock roads of South Kivu Province, barely managing not to fall out of the truck, my bra, and all the while fielding frantic phonecalls from Cleve, in Holland, who probably felt equally responsible for the predicament of our staff and equally helpless to save them as quickly as we both wanted to.

We did finally arrive at Lwiro, and Adam and I jumped out of the pickup to deposit our bags at the house and arrange ourselves for the trip back out to the airport to deal with our visa issues while the driver brought the chimps to the new dormitory, where they would be quarantined until their introduction with the remaining population of Lwiro.

Time was once again against us -- it was a 45 minute drive between the sanctuary and the airport, and South Kivu is simply not safe to drive in during the night -- we had to therefore hurry back to the DGM’s to retrieve our passports before darkness set in a little more than 2 hours.

I couldn’t reach my mom, but I managed to reach Rachel and let her know that we’d made it alright. She wasn’t happy to hear that Adam was a fugitive and that we’d relinquished our passports, but she promised to just let my mother know that I was “alright”.

When we finally arrived at the airport again, the sun was aglow in the warm yellow haze just before setting, and it illuminated the ridiculous reflector shades of the policeman who stopped our car at the airport gate. Though Ainare had paid for a 24 hour pass into the airport, the policeman was intent on us paying to enter the airport again -- $120!!

Though my patience was at its end and my stress levels near enough to popping my eyeballs from my head, I explained to him that we were only going to see the DGM and retrieve our passports, and then leave.

I must have looked a sight, as I saw my frazzled hair and wide-eyes in the reflection of his sunglasses, but he waved his hand non-chalantly to allow us to pass, as though he disdained us for not wanting to pay again to enter the airport.

We didn’t have as much luck at the second checkpoint. The officer there, luminescent in his safety-cone-orange trenchcoat, refused to let our car pass. When we offered to walk to the immigration office by foot, he pointed at me brusquely, saying in broken English, “You, okay” and, swinging his accusatory finger at Adam, “Him, no!”

Telling Adam it would be alright and leaving him at the hands of the various street urchins begging at the airport gate, I walked to the DGM’s office, imagining that I’d just be able to retrieve our passports and go.


The DGM was busy issuing some sort of fine to a UN woman who had (gasp!) taken photographs at the airport. He seemed to relish making her wait, which of course also translated into making me wait, as the sun crept farther and farther toward the horizon.

I’ll never understand how exactly being tricked and bamboozled by immigration put us at fault, but as I struggled to gain sympathy from these airport DGMs, I realized that there was no way that I was going to get our passports back. As a woman, you can get away with more in these sorts of situations, but even crying didn’t cause these two guys to yield.

One of them, who finally broke and did seem to feel bad, offered to accompany us to Bukavu the following day to visit the DGM. He’d rest with our passports that night, but assured me that he’d arrive at our house at 7:30am with a taxi to take us the 2.5 hour ride to Bukavu.

We’d originally hoped to spend lots of time at Lwiro -- but it seemed this visa problem was going to stymie any hopes we’d had of just relaxing and celebrating our success. With each new roadblock we encountered, it was feeling less and less like success anyway.

Additionally, though I played it close so as not to worry him, I didn’t know what Adam’s arrest warrant would mean for our departure plans. I mean, I couldn’t imagine that it could make its way east in less than 2 years, but it’s not the kind of thing you want to bet on and then lose. As I say often, there are lots of things in Congo that can be thought of as funny, but Congolese prison is just not one of them.

Our new plan was therefore to head to Bukavu the following day, see the DGM, and then board the boat to Goma and cross into Rwanda before the expiration of our fake visas on April 2nd.

It was probably fortuitous that I ran into a man in the DGM’s office whose name was literally “Of the Forest” -- and who was indeed a jungle savior, not only for his detailed knowledge of the boat schedules, but for his friendliness and offer to book us two places on the Wednesday boat at 11am.

Heading back towards the car, I ran into Adam, who I suppose had finally been deemed Not a Threat by the technicolor policeman (Adam was, after all, wearing the Peter the Penguin shirt I made him. Not very threatening) and allowed into the airport grounds.

He too was not happy about our passport situation, but there are some things you can fight constantly and lose or just accept that you’re not going to win and move on from.

We sped back to the sanctuary, and managed to arrive just as the darkness had finally descended. We sat for a long time with the Coopera girls and vented our day’s frustrations. It’s also always a bit jarring when fellow Congo-workers turn to you and tell you you’re brave, and that they’d never have gone through what you did. It, at least, puts things into perspective.

I’d been up since 3 am, but couldn’t sleep quite yet, so we went down to our beautiful room, where Adam took a much-needed hot shower and I flopped on our tiny, ever-so-comfortable bunkbed. My mother called me, and as I recounted the day’s events I felt myself getting more and more upset. Cleve and I spoke too, never a moment to pause and reflect, always more to do, never finished.

Our workers were still in jail, so I didn’t feel right even celebrating the triumph that was getting the chimps to Lwiro, and instead I just lay in the bed, crying not out of sadness but out of the overflow of emotion from the whole day.

Dinner was delicious - spaghetti with sauce and CHEESE and we had great company with the Coopera staff of Lwiro. We didn’t head back down the hill to our room until around 9:30 or 10, and I realized that if we left at 7:30am the following morning, it would be extremely difficult not only to say goodbye to our babies, but I wouldn’t even get to see my kids from Goma.

We texted the airport DGM, and asked him if he could come with the taxi later in the day -- maybe 10:30? Thankfully, he agreed, and not only did we have a schedule the following day that was more lax, but we could sleep in a little, too!

The next morning we had CORNFLAKES (!!) and milk! and I got to catch up with one of my original caregivers from Goma - Balume - who is now one of the HEAD caregivers at Lwiro and doing spectacularly.

We headed over through the mud to see our kids first, who seemed to be adjusting quite well! Kathé was a bit miffed at being indoors, and Aketi was more shell-shocked than anything else, immediately clinging to Adam and falling asleep, but Django and Bolungwa were delighted by all the new foods they were being offered!! And Mangé was, well, still Mangé.

It certainly made ME realize, in any case, how much we’d accomplished, and our goodbyes -- our last goodbyes for a long time -- were extremely hard. Bolungwa didn’t want to let me go, and though we had to rush to be ready for the taxi at 10:30, the feeling was mutual.

Before heading back to the house, we also stopped at the enclosure of the other chimps, and to my great delight, coming over to the enclosure’s periphery, were my kids from Goma. They recognized me, reaching out, curious, wanting me to come over ... ignoring the food that was being proffered at the other end of the enclosure. They were SO BIG I could NOT believe it! I could barely recognize Yongesa, she’d gotten so big! But Kanabiro and Gari and Shege had the SAME faces -- and once again, I found my face streaming with tears, wanting to hold them, seeing them happy, healthy... such a rush of emotions.

Because I’d been around chimps who were in quarantine, it was a bad idea for me to interact with my Goma kids. I had to watch from a distance, encouraging me all the more to come back sooner.

As we hurried back to the house to bring up our bags for the taxi, forgetting that time is forgotten in Congo, I realized too how sad I was to leave Ainare, whom I’d only just met but was already extremely fond of.

Our taxi did indeed come, though, and it took us nearly 3 hours of struggling through the mud, rain, and rocky terrain to finally arrive in Bukavu.

Compounding all of our other worries was our shrinking cash - we’d paid salaries and helped out people before leaving Aketi, including our “fee” to leave via plane to our “friend” the extortive official. And, though my mother had agreed to Western Union us some money to Bukavu, we decided it was best to receive the money after our meeting with the DGM.

The airport DGM, however, was sort of nice and friendly during our 3 hour taxi ride, and we talked with him *somewhat* liberally, though still leaving out pertinent parts of our harrowing journey. Out of all the DGMs we’d yet encountered, I’d probably trust him most with our lives, though all of them are technically mandated in the job description to protect us.

The DGM’s compound in Bukavu was not-so-surprisingly nicer than any we’d yet encountered in our tour of Central Congo. It had four walls, a lack of goats or miscellaneous poultry in the lobby, and instead, was furnished with ornately posh white leather sofas. (Why people in a hot country always go for leather, I’ll never know)

Upon entering the office, however, it seemed routine and familiar. Papers were stacked everywhere with tiny hand-written labels saying things like “Protestant Missionaries” (a big pile) and “Catholic Missionaries” (an even bigger pile), this office held FOUR desks, each with a man dressed in a fine suit.

We weren’t exactly sure which one was the DGM, so as I explained our situation I tried to look each of the four men in the eye. Somewhat less powerful, but hopefully more useful.

Predictably, while two of the men stayed silent, the other two broke off into the “Good Cop, Bad Cop” routine.

Bad Cop was intent on us printing more of our documents, sure that we had somehow conspired to be against the law.

Good Cop conversed extensively with the other 2 mutes, in Lingala, and I picked up maybe 60% of it, unbeknownst to them, mostly a conversation about not wanting Congo to look bad.

Bad Cop suggested that we get 2 1-month visas at $90 each, despite the fact that we were leaving the country the next day and our existing paperwork didn’t expire until the 2nd.

Even though I cried on cue, the fact of the matter was that we had paid FAR more for some documents that were illegitimate, but not yet expired. Not only was it not fair to penalize us for being tricked, but we’d already paid $100 more per ATLP, and they wanted us to pay $180 on top of that?!

I explained too that we had no money, which was true, despite our having money waiting for us at the Western Union. Bad Cop, infuriated by the fact that we were not cushioning our pith helmets with Benjamins like perhaps other whites he’d encountered, stormed from the office, claiming he was off to find a solution.

For me, at any rate, I felt that inner tension rise as Good Cop insisted that he call the DGM in Kisangani, the boss of the DGM who issued us the fake visa, to inform him of his lackey’s treachery! I wasn’t sure how far Adam’s arrest warrant had made it, so imagine my relief when they seemed to talk of nothing but trickery and less of our Wanted status.

Bad Cop eventually came back in, a proud smile on his face, claiming that he’d found a solution... for us to get 2 1-month visas at $90/each. Hadn’t I heard this one before?

I explained to him again that we didn’t have the money and that we would leave the country tomorrow, but no one ever said conversation in Congo was efficient. Oh, and he also said that we would recoup our money from the Buta DGM once their investigation was finished, somehow trying to encourage us to cough up the $180. Um, recoup our money that was trickily thieved from us? Try not to laugh out loud at THAT one!

They asked us why we weren’t leaving via Bukavu, and continually peppered us with questions about why we’d gotten fake visas, as though we’d had a choice, and why chimpanzees were important at all.

Trying to keep calm and under-the-radar, even after Bad Cop came back into the room with a “new solution” (2 1-month visas at $90 each), it was slightly disturbing to have a new gentleman come into the room and start talking to me about how there was a different sanctuary in Congo that was going to seize all of Lwiro’s chimps. What?!

Not a time to start a fight, I just pretended that I didn’t really understand him.

We waited and waited and waited. At the mark of the third hour, my crocodile tears only partially dried, and with one additional visit from Bad Cop once again suggesting his $180 bailout plan (that was once again rejected), Good Cop finally said that he couldn’t give us new visas for free, but that he would enable our departure from the country the following day, calling all of the relevant people to make sure we wouldn’t have problems.

We even got his phone number, and piled into our taxi to head away, our passports in hand. (HURRAY!) The first hotel, run by a conservationist in Bukavu, was sadly full, so imagine our relief when a nearby hotel, THE HORIZON, had room for us - a big, luxurious room with a bathtub and a TV and a huge squishy bed.

I left Adam to load our stuff into the room, and rushed with our cab driver to the Western Union to pick up the money from my mother. It was, however, closed, and as we raced through the traffic of Bukavu looking for one that was open, I realized that the poverty I claimed in the DGM’s office was perhaps realer and DID necessitate real tears... all the while wondering whether THE HORIZON took IOU’s.

Finally, we found an open Western Union, and our problems were, for the moment, solved. It still didn’t leave us much money to get out of the country, we had to pay the $50/each for the boat ride, and we had to buy our Ugandan visas.

Eating food at THE HORIZON that night was a dream -- bedraggled in our locally-made Congolese outfits, the few bits of clothing we hadn’t given away -- mushrooms on toast for me, BEEF for Adam, cold beers! Things that shouldn’t be tear-inducing sometimes are, despite your tough veneer.

We had only one day left to go -- one day left in Congo -- one more day susceptible to the arrest warrant -- and though there was only one day left it dragged on and on and on.

We did get to the boat docks by 10 am the next day to make our 11 am boat to Goma, and, thanks to De La Forêt, our two reservations were indeed already booked. No one had mentioned to us, however, that we only got 10kg of luggage a piece, but thankfully I had just barely had the extra $43 to pay in excess baggage charges.

There was, of course, a DGM at the docks, to whom we had to explain the whole story ... again. More alarming, however, was the HORDES of military and policemen at the docks. Maybe under regular circumstances it would just make me uncomfortable, but considering our urgent departure needs, it was all the more disquieting. Not helpful was the fact that they all hung around us, asking for money. At least regular beggars don’t have guns! (but do they have *bullets*?)

My heart did stop, however, when a man ran over to us, wearing a bright pink and red shirt that had lots of prints of different kinds of ladies’ shoes on it.

“Are you Lola?” he panted at me.

How much I wanted to say No and run, (RUN, LOLA, RUN!!) but considering I was between a fence and a lake, I had to concede that yes, I was “Lola” and waited for whatever bad news or obstacle he had in store for me.

Imagine my surprise when he was not a harbinger of doom, but an envoy of the Good Cop from the day before, making sure that we were okay. He’d apparently been sent down to the docks at 6 am to wait for us, but had missed us (who knows how), and wanted to make sure we hadn’t had trouble with our Fake Visas.

How nice, as a sendoff from Congo, to have Good Cop been true to his word. Of course, ShoeShirt man still asked for money, which we didn’t have to give him, but hey, it is Congo.

When we finally boarded the boat, it was SUCH a relief, despite one particularly large military man claiming that “Mama Lola” was “abandoning” him (I’d refused to give him money). Despite the boat being full though, it didn’t leave, and as I sat with a front-row view of the countless military and police officers on the dock, my stomach dropped and I was reminded of that moment on the plane in Aketi, just willing the driver/pilot to GO GO GO before it was too late!

It turns out the military & police were there to wish a farewell to some big official, who showed up predictably late, holding up the boat, and as the military guys goosestepped to greet him on the docks, we couldn’t help but snigger. Funnier too was the camera man who accompanied him onto the boat as he took his seat, filming him with great interest. It’ll be a box office hit for sure!

And, as the boat took off across Lake Kivu, the volcanoes at its periphery silhouetted in the grey morning, we were finally on our way.

I would imagine that airlines have a “no” list of movies they shouldn’t show on airplanes, like Con Air or United 93 or maybe even Soul Plane.

Why this $50 luxury boat travel company chose to show Speed 2 then is beyond me (it’s about a cruise ship being overtaken and all the passengers being evacuated, etc). Why not Poseidon or even better, Titanic? At least Titanic is more watchable than Speed 2, and as we watched with the bizarre French dubbing, we couldn’t help but laugh at inappropriately dramatic places.

Worse, however, was the local standup comedy DVD afterwards, performed by a Congolese guy who’d traveled to Belgium. As you can probably guess, most of the jokes were about how CRAZZZZZYYY white people were. I’d equate it with being at the Apollo. Every time this stand-up guy would make some comment about white people in Congo, everyone in the boat turned and looked at us.

Always fun!

But we did finally arrive in Goma, and, our savior, Don, who works at the US Embassy was there to greet us. He stood by as we visited our second-to-last DGM at the port (can you believe how many we had to see just to get out of the country!?), making sure we were alright. This DGM was a bit more enterprising/weasly than the previous 2, and tried to tell me that there was a mandatory fee for every white coming to Goma, a lie I didn’t buy for a minute (and I had a burly Embassy guy to back me up).

With the proper names thrown around, however, he released us without paying a nickel, and Don’s driver drove us away from the port and towards Rwanda at last.

Goma has changed SO much since I was last there -- they’ve built it up considerably and even the elephant graveyard is covered in huge buildings now! The Lebanese restaurant is gone, and Don was eager regardless to get us OUT of the country instead of having lunch there anyway.

It was wonderfully familiar, though, and I was almost sad I couldn’t stay longer.


Arriving at the border, I saw that it too had changed. Last visit, it had been a drab, grey building riddled with bullet holes. They had since painted it bright blue and yellow and red (the flag colors) and they even had a COMPUTER inside the office, though it didn’t seem like anyone knew how to use it.

We, once again, had to explain our situation, and Good Cop in Bukavu hadn’t quite gotten around to calling anyone at THIS post, so a few tense minutes were spent as the border guard eyed our paperwork suspiciously.

He insisted that we leave the receipt and the ATLPs there so that they could “investigate the fraud” -- however much of a joke this may or may not have been, we had gotten out of Congo without having to pay a dime, and if it cost 3 pieces of paper, so be it.

We got back into the car, Don and I both encouraging Adam not to dance until after we GOT to Rwanda, and zoomed through the barrier.

Rwanda was, of course, easy. I know my passport number by heart after filling out so many of these little cards, but for Americans, Rwanda is FREE ENTRY because it’s just that cool.

Don dropped us off at the hotel in Rwanda, and we excitedly made plans for lunch there the following day together. The hotel brought us hot towels to wash our faces, and cold champagne.

It was then that we knew we were free. Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.


We’ll be posting more entries eventually, organizing posts and fixing old tags and uploading more photos once we get back to America. I’m also hoping to post a “hilarious search terms that found my blog” entry.

Thank you for tuning in. Once all the research stuff is squared away, I’ll also post an entry thanking the people who helped me immensely with that. But for a while, this will be the last entry.

Questions? Comments?

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