Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cine Majestic

I may gripe about being stuck in Kinshasa for extra weeks, but Foreign Service people here typically have 2 year tours, and they've got to keep busy!

We took a big group trip on Tuesday to the local "movie theatre" to see a "special showing" of The King's Speech. I hadn't actually seen it while I was in the States, but love Colin Firth and was obviously interested in the post-Oscar buzz.

I don't know that I would have ever found this place, and the other FS people here have commented that any social activities circulate only through word of mouth.

It was about 15 of us, piled into a small room that was appointed with some extremely nice and plush chairs surrounding a table that held an LCD projector. They didn't have popcorn, but they did sell semi-cold beer and wine.

We didn't get tickets, because "the man with the key [to the ticket book] had gone" which, for those who have worked in central or eastern Africa, is a common error that borders on farcical. I giggle every time I hear it, and think about Ian Clarke's book of the same title.

I chuckled too as the movie started, and I saw on the projected screen that we were watching a bootleg DivX rip using VLC. Hehehe. David G would be proud!

I actually really enjoyed the film, and it was nice to have another group outing after our exciting trip to Maluku. Tonight the theatre is showing Black Swan, and I may go with another expat who hasn't yet seen it!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Avenue Colonel Mondjiba,Kinshasa,Democratic Republic of the Congo

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Maluku Resort

In the spirit of getting out and getting to know Kinshasa, I spent my Sunday with a number of State Department and UN friends on a little boating pilgrimage to a Portuguese "resort" called Maluku, on the banks of the Congo River.

I don't know how I would have ever found it myself... we started the day early in order to get to the marina and take out the boat, a US Embassy vessel appropriately named "Getaway" since, when it's not being rented for day trips, it is the evacuation boat for certain Americans.

The marina itself was lined with fancy speedboats, yet surrounding this stashed wealth were people, literally living on the fringe of society. Camped in rusted old tugboats, many of them clearly askew as they slowly sunk with time, laundry line hung between cracking masts and naked flagpoles. A line of stilted houses, made not with tin or wood but hung on the sides with old billboards or ripped and dirty flaps of cloth, cluttered a sand dune that sat between the channel out to the river and the river itself.

It took about an hour to get there, the sky was still overcast when we left, and its grey haze, reflected in the still water made it difficult to distinguish between water and sky. It was early still, and Sunday, and still we saw the occasional fishing boat, the men inside in the midst of a beautifully coordinated dance as they released their net into the water and pulled it out.

When we arrived, we were among the first, and we sat in our fancy yellow beer-sponsored plastic chairs and put our things down on the beer-sponsored tablecloths. Eager and opportunistic young men came from the shore and from the trees to sell us things: catfish, still alive and wriggling, so heavy that the young men struggled to bring them up the hill from the beach.

Men came from the forests along the edges of Maluku, arms laden with fresh avocados and green lumpy lemons.

I thought we'd be relaxing and reading, but the good collection of folks chatted until, after about 2 hours, our food came. Delicious, FRESH fish right from the river, grilled and sweet, if not a bit bony.

I was the only one who felt like swimming after such a big meal, most likely on account of the unknown factors of the river mores than the full stomachs.

There are all sorts of "exciting" waterborne parasites, which I felt were more of a danger than any real threat of crocodiles :)

I planned originally to go into the water in flip flops, but two steps in told me that if I went in with them, they weren't coming back with me. The bottom of the river was slick, slimy, and impossibly suctioning. I took my feet out of the shoes even to get them out of the mud, and threw them back to the shore.

The slick slime of the bottom gave me some pause as I waded out deeper, needing to go quite far to even have water above my knees. If I had gone much farther, I would have ended up in Republic of Congo, right across the river!

The water itself, though brown and murky, wasn't cold and felt refreshing in the hot sun. The current was strong, but I wondered what it would take to actually swim across to RoC.

After the swim, we relaxed more in our small little grass-thatched shamba, watching various cargo boats and makeshift sailing boats go by, their plastic tarp sails taut with wind.

Big logging boats went by too, a small tug followed by 50+ logs, bound together and floating on the river, their guardians standing, watchfully, on the surface of the logs that were also dotted with their rudimentary sleeping tents.

By 3pm, we needed to get the boat back, so we packed up and lazily boarded The Getaway, the afternoon sun scorching us as it bounced from the still water.

I've traveled a lot by boat in Congo, and what strikes me most often is the vestiges. We passed lots of old, half dilapidated factories and retaining walls, and in the distance I spotted a greyed and crumbling diving tower next to an old waterslide.

Everyone was tired when we got back, and over sunned, though I'd made sure not to get more burned after my Saturday burn!

Funnily, I discovered later that "Maluku" means "crazy" in Portuguese.

Crazy indeed!

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Location:Someone Else's Network

Fresh Capitaine from the Congo River


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Internet Peeping Tom

Internet Peeping Tom a photo by amalthya on Flickr.

I don't have Internet access (yet) though I am due to go to the company today.

So in the interim, I hide in the bushes by a neighbour's house who has free wifi, and I creep.

Along the Water's Edge

Along the Water's Edge by amalthya
Along the Water's Edge a photo by amalthya on Flickr.

Kinshasa may be metropolitan, but traveling along the marina, it's hard to believe when you see all these shanty huts

Swimming in the Congo River

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Little Sunburned

A Little Sunburned
A Little Sunburned a photo by amalthya on Flickr.

Gingers and Africa don't always mix. Despite my best efforts today at the pool, I got some sun...

The Exotic Mundane

I've been remiss in posting on the blog, because I hold such a high standard for things that I consider publicly newsworthy. By comparison, it feels like my last Congolese sojourn was filled with high adventure, and this one is laughably dull, but I've been having a good time and experiencing some wonderful wilds, even though I haven't been in peril.

I've been particularly lucky to have had my friend H here, who, before she left for the States, did the wonderfully conscientious thing of telling her friends that I could use entertaining.

Two such people have done just that, inviting me out to things more regularly than I can even sustain. One works for USAID and the other for the UN, and we spent Wednesday night salsa dancing until the wee hours.

I find the Kinshasa-based obsession with salsa to be sort of funny and yet appropriate. During my time in north Congo, nothing got people up and active better than a little piece of dance music. Contemporary music, let alone international music like salsa, didn't have much impact aside from the very little played on the radio, but most native Congolese music is distinguishable by its ass-shaking beat.

The grooves of salsa end up melding so well here as a result. The fluid undulation of the spine and the legato gyration of the meaty female Congolese derrieres is really something to behold -- we went to two DIFFERENT salsa clubs on Wednesday. The first was just starting out, but intentionally luxurious and classy. The second was more established, and the owner, a dapper fellow with relaxed long hair smoothed back, had hired a feisty and short dancer named Safi to dance with various patrons. Wow, could she dance, and it was electric in the wee hours of the morning to watch her, along with the owner and several other very professional-seeming dancers in this cyclical tango, hips swaying, their hands clapping above their heads at beats within the music.

The nightlife of Kinshasa for the expat is somewhat limited, so since Wednesday I've run into the same collections of people several more times.

I was among a large collection of expats today at the Grand Hotel, paying $15 for the honor of swimming in a clean and fancy pool next to the President's residence. No insurrection happened today, thankfully, but I did also pay $15 for a rather tasty club sandwich. Not something I can afford to do regularly (nor would I want to) but it was a nice excursion out.

It continues to feel like I am on holiday. The undertone of peril isn't even taken seriously. Tomorrow I am taking one of the US Embassy evacuation boats out onto the Congo River for a picnic with friends. I'm legitimately excited to get out of the city and see something new, and maybe swim in the Congo River! Crocodiles be damned!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Corktree US Embassy Housing Compound

La Salsa Congolaise

La Salsa Congolaise a video by amalthya on Flickr.

Brilliant dancing at Club Sai Sai

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Marvelous Mangosteen

Marvelous Mangosteen by amalthya
Marvelous Mangosteen a photo by amalthya on Flickr.
Juicy, its meat not unlike that of the lychee, the mangosteen is a beautiful fruit.

Manger De Mangosteen!The outside looks like a die-cut stamp, and the skin is hard and difficult to cut. But once you get it open... What a treasure!

Maybe coveting this weird fruit is what made Charlie Sheen go crazy!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Getting to K-now K-inshasa

Having resolved to make the most of my time until I head into the field, I've had the privilege of spending time with Terese in the TL2 Project Office and around Kinshasa.

And, as much as I have envied the protection and security enjoyed by the people who work for the US government here, I have come to realize too how restrictive it is, and how I should enjoy the freedom to go wherever I please!

I am so thankful to Terese too for including me in her plans here. I've met some wonderful people, and had absolutely riveting dinner conversations that weigh very heavily on the future of my own research within the country.

Last night we went down to Embassy Row to walk Georg the Dog, and get a little exercise and enjoy the sunset air as the city finally cooled down. What a difference, really! Since I've been in Kinshasa, nearly 2 weeks now, I'd yet to see a single non-Congolese-person walking on the street.

It's remarkable since Kinshasa really is a town of walkers! But there on Embassy Row, along the edge of the Congo River, there were all sorts of fair-skinned diplomats and families, roller-blading, walking their dogs, and enjoying the beauty of the day.

I appreciated so much finally getting to stretch my legs again. We ended up doing a bit of jogging, but only to escape from the stray dogs who were intent on picking a fight with Georg!

The Congo River is really remarkable, and what a shame that I'd never gotten to see it from Kinshasa before. The last time I was here for only a day before moving onto Kisangani, but now that I am in Kinshasa through March, it's excellent, being able to take the time and enjoy the sights.

How funny that, across the river, is a whole separate country. Terese told me stories of walking along the DRC side of the river during the wars in Brazzaville, witnessing the red flashes just across the water. I imagine itt was similar for people in Brazzaville during the DRC wars!

The coup attempt still lingers within the city. A huge section of the walking path was "interdict" to walk upon, so enforced by large bands of red-bereted soldiers, sprawled lazily in their plastic chairs with their automatic weapons propped up haphazardly next to them.

There was a big tank too, and I snapped some ninja photos of that that I wish were less blurry, but not at the expense of my safety!

Today, after we worked hard in the morning, we went to the Patisserie Nouvelle, a darling little coffee shop in Gombe right across from city market. We sat outside, drinking our tea and eating delightful little buns and, eventually, delicious omelets! The outside air was warm but not stiflingly so, and between the intermittent sounds of birdies chirping, one could hear the grind of ancient motors or the peppering calls of hawkers saying "Cartier! Cartier!" as they shook their box of fake gold watches at passers-by.

Perhaps we will go later to buy yummy sweets, that were Oh So Delicious to look at, but, full from brunch, we declined and instead went home to sleep off our food comas.

Congo was not entirely forgotten either, as, upon emerging from the patisserie, we were surrounded by hawkers and beggars and street kids. The tall lanky mute (who I think was deaf) was still patiently watching our car, and took great effort in orchestrating our exit from the parking lot, however unnecessary. The street kids scowled at him as he got a little money for his work, and we pulled away, careful to avoid the many potholes that are pretty standard on even the most rehabilitated of Congolese roads.

Now it's back to work, readying for another exciting dinner companion in just a few hours.

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Location:Avenue Colonel Mondjiba,Kinshasa,Democratic Republic of the Congo

Sunset over the Congo River

Gorgeous peaceful happy evening. That's Congo-Brazzaville across the river!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ninja Tank Photo

Ninja Tank Photo
Ninja Tank Photo a photo by amalthya on Flickr.

Apologies for the blurriness of this photo of a tank near the president's house, but photos are verboten and I had to be extremely sneaky!!

Hard at Work at the TL2 Project Office

Trying to keep myself consumed in finishing abstracts for my own
publications and presentations and helping out with TL2 needs. I can't
complain -- there is air conditioning and a mangosteen tree and an avocado
tree. I may become a tree-dwelling monkey and live here forever.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

LRA rhymes with "delay"

It is impossible to plan for everything, I know, but I really REALLY tried to foresee delay when I plotted this whole trip. It's the reason that a 3 week training yielded a 7 week trip, basically giving Congo a month to en retard me and thwart my field-efficiency.

My original timetable left me in Kinshasa to get all my paperwork for 2 weeks (1Mar-15Mar) then be in Kisangani for a few days, then head north up towards Bili, which is in the Bas-Uele District of Province Orientale. I mention the location so that when you read this you will understand why and how it changes my plans considerably and forces me to find alternatives whereas before they were not necessary.

That being said, the LRA isn't something to take lightly but there are also a lot more claims of LRA activity than are justified. It's like a more violent version of Elvis sightings. Still, the original plan to start training near the 15th of March is now delayed until the beginning of April. My buffer is shrinking, and my time in Kinshasa is growing.

I talk to my colleagues/collaborators today about the new schedule, and the real likelihood that I'll get less time with Annie in Nairobi than I hoped and potentially have to do a lot more rushing.

More news after our meeting, as I work in a proper office with internets aplenty.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Avenue Colonel Mondjiba,Kinshasa,Democratic Republic of the Congo

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


The sun shone brightly this past Monday, as I was driven through the periphery of Kinshasa to visit the only bonobo sanctuary in the world, Lola ya Bonobo. In Lingala, it means "Paradise of the Bonobos," and after a day there, I cannot disagree.

Bonobos were once considered a subspecies of chimpanzee, because of their similar environments and appearance. Many people can't tell the difference between the two even now, but their primary difference is in their behaviors. Bonobos in the wild are separated from chimpanzees as well by the mighty Congo River, which is impassable, though I'll no longer say that most great apes avoid water!

The bonobos of Lola are remarkable in their affinity for water. The babies play in it as though they were neighborhood kids in the fire hydrant. And even the adults on the edge of this river loll in the water, blowing bubbles, sprawling languidly, and splashing around.

It's a behavior also seen sometimes in the wild, but having worked with almost exclusively chimpanzees these past few years, who tend to avoid water entirely, it was so funny to see!

Though, considering the heat of the day, I can't say that I blame them! I was nearly ready to get into the river too!

A lot of the day was consumed with behavioral observation, sussing out the little differences between these bonobos and my chimpanzees. Amongst the babies within the nursery, it didn't seem that different. Play-stomping around, sprawled in their mama's laps, chasing one another back and forth while swinging from anything and everything, I missed my chimp kids, now at Lwiro, terribly.

I spent more time by the fence of one of the adult enclosures, watching a group interact as their waited for their 15h feeding.

The group was broken into a much smaller pod than the 21 bonobos who filled the enclosures,and as they waited in the grassy shade along the bank of the river, there was a calmness about them as they groomed and played and frolicked at the water's edge.

Chimpanzees in captivity tend to get pretty agitated during this period, and there's lots of screaming and intragroup conflict as the tension rising from anticipation becomes overwhelming. Carrots! Mangos! TOO MUCH EXCITEMENT! And excitement becomes tension. And tension becomes fear, which leads to hate, which of course leads to the dark side.

So imagine my amazement as the food bearers came, loaded with yummies and the bonobos were silent! There was no fighting, no screaming, no wild displays, as they casually ambled over closer to the fence to get their grub.

It was lovely to see such a peaceful society, and yes, bonobos are certainly famous for adhering this peace with a careful balance of sexual favors.

It's sort of funny that it makes bonobos "famous" in a way, as though it's some sort of tawdry nastiness, some sort of National Geographic-prescribed porn. But honestly, seeing the little group at Lola, and comparing them to the great deal I know of chimpanzees in captivity, I can't say it's a bad strategy.

Humans develop attachments and do favors for those with whom they're intimate, so it makes sense that, within a group, if you want to tighten your bonds to your group mates that you engage in a little hanky panky. A little Charles Manson-esque, perhaps, but it's really the chimps and not bonobos who are out killing Sharon Tate.

This reliance on sexuality for group peace and prosperity ends up sort of altering a lot of the standards I've become accustomed to in sanctuary management.

Typically in any great ape sanctuary, resources are already taxed by the influx of orphans and therefore reproduction is inhibited through the use of contraceptive implants. With bonobos however, the use of implants has also affected the estrous swellings of bonobos, which are understandably crucial to their social bonds since sex is so integral in their society!

For me it was so interesting to see how behavioral differences so impact the management of such otherwise similar apes.

Overall, the day was absolutely magnificent. Claudine and Fanny, the onsite vet and assistant project manager, have done such a splendid job with Lola. Any sanctuary ends up being a huge undertaking, to ensure the safety not only of the primates within, but the human primates as well! The compromise between things like protecting the bonobos from visitors' diseases versus having the visitors get a real lasting experience to better their understanding of bonobos are huge issues, and Fanny is handling them with aplomb.

I hope to get a chance to go back, and that this entry has encouraged others to learn more about some of our closest cousins! For more information about Lola Ya Bonobo, please visit

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Location:Avenue Colonel Mondjiba,Kinshasa,Democratic Republic of the Congo

And the rain fell

Wednesday, Noonish

The rain fell today, finally, after several days without and lifted with it the stifling heat of the city. The sun is out, and with it, I try to lift my moods too from their dark dwelling places.

I don't know how free I feel in this, my public blog, but I've been waylaid by delays and the accompanying frustration, no matter how expected the delay, is hard to process into something productive.

Rumblings are underfoot again that more insurrection is coming, but here in the compound, I don't fear it. Perhaps foolish, I know, but it has become ever more clear to me the disparity between the experience here for Americans in Kinshasa versus out in the field.

Everything in Aketi was uncertain. I had absolutely no guarantees of safety, and had events transpired even slightly differently, it may have been a much more gruesome tale. I don't know if that sort of uncertainty ever enters the picture here in Kinshasa for most of the people who live and work here under US protection.

Certainly I know my friend here has had her fair share of scares, but she seems unique amongst the groups I've encountered here, who live here as just another isolated post in their duties. I have met people who live here who do not speak French, and could not fathom even learning to speak Lingala. They focus on Western activities that they can partake in here -- going to the gym, visiting the newest, most expensive restaurants, salsa dancing and horseback riding.

I was told a tale over dinner the other night of two such people who had been at the Grand Hotel, next door to the president's compound, on the day of the last insurrection attempt. They spoke of gunfire by the poolside like it was a funny anecdote. Beret-clad military special forces scaling the wall and running past the pool as though it was laughable, and all the while, gravity felt as though we were on the moon.

While it wastes time to be overly grave about dangers here, one still needs to be aware of them as legitimate threats, if only to prepare oneself for any impediments.

Yesterday was Women's Day, and my friend and I attended a small gathering of foreign service people in their fancy attire, but it didn't seem as though anyone had interrupted their days to really celebrate the meaning of the day.

It was such a juxtaposition for me from my last experience with Women's Day here in Congo, where the day's activities were halted entirely while women banded together, dressed in their speciality-made outfits to parade through the town, celebrated, as the men cheered them on.

It was particularly special for me to be a part of that day, assimilated with my female staff in my matching outfit as I walked proudly with the parade of ladies down the main street of Aketi Town.

Assimilation seems discouraged within this community... a necessary separation between countrypeople... and that makes me sort of sad. One of my greatest joys in the field is experiencing fully a different way of life, free from cultural norms and trappings.

Yet at the same time, is there a compromise between this safe, isolated and separated life versus subjecting oneself to danger and uncertainty as a result of immersion in another area's culture and subsequent "laws"? Is the liberty to enjoy the natural life amongst another group worth the necessary reliance on yourself and no other?

I don't even refer to protecting myself, but moreso those I love. When I think of the dangers I subjected Adam to on our last trip here, it upsets me horribly and I cannot imagine any future family I may have being any less important to me than he is now. Despite having colleagues who have brought their children into the bush, I cannot imagine ever being comfortable subjecting my own to the sort of perils of the unknown that end up being so commonplace, the deeper and wilder one's surroundings become.

This entry is cranky, and scattered, and I feel like maybe I should have some tea and write about visiting the bonobos instead. It may stop me from missing Adam so much, and feeling guilty for needing this wild so much, not just for my work but for myself.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Corktree US Embassy Housing Compound, Kinshasa

Monday, March 7, 2011

Waiting for bonobos!

Waiting for bonobos!
The adult group doesn't come out into the hot hot sun until the food arrives!! The view is so lovely it's easy to be patient.

Bonobo Nursery

Baby bonobos doing what they do best, or rather, what you want to think they're doing all the time. (I'm a panderer, I know)

Mama Esperance

Mama Esperance
Taking care of orphaned primates is hard work. Mama Esperance has been caring for orphaned infant bonobos since 2005. They're extremely attached, just like human children and require a lot of attention.

When days are hot!

When days are hot!
Wow is it hot in DRC today, and were I a bonobo, I'd probably be chilling in the water too! Most chimps I have worked with hate water, so it's interesting to see these bonobos enjoy it so thoroughly.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Holiday in Cambodia

Saturday, 10:00am

I've spent the last few days not even sure what day it is, and I feel fine. But what's funny is that my experience has been unlike any experience I've yet had in Congo, underlining further the disparity of experience even within country and within people.

It's been one of the easiest transitions I've had thus far because of the very real Western standard of living enjoyed by US workers living and working abroad. Safely ensconced within the compound, I've been eating vittles from Trader Joe's, gnoshing on chocolate covered cherries, and marveling at the store of canned goods and other Embassy-proffered "consumables" that I rarely see in New York, let alone DRC. (as a sidenote, Trader Joe's is a relative novelty in New York and was, until recently, only at 14th street which is hardly nearby or convenient)

But it's been extremely peaceful and nice. My friend and I chat like city girls might, not about the field but about relationships and other emotional minutia. We watch movies from Blockbuster, and she knits socks while I work on my needlepoint and we laugh and kibitz and her cats snuggle us as we settle into her plush couches.

There probably could have been a full coup or revolution as we watched movies these last two days, and we wouldn't really know, since the sounds of the city are removed from this place.

I could, quite frankly, be anywhere. It's a holiday, with air conditioning, and I titled this entry "Holiday in Cambodia" not just because it's a great song but because this has been an experience not at all specific to Congo in any way. The view out her front patio is tropical and green, but we don't experience any of the heat as the air conditioners rumble away. Last night we lost power a few times, but unlike my time in Uganda where my flashlight was readily available and nearby, I just waited here less than a minute for the compound generator to kick in and the power to be restored

There are of course some giveaways, like walking outside to get distilled (drinkable) water and being barraged with the sweet sticky smell and fragrant humidity that I can only associate with central and eastern Africa. Or, for example, trying not to drown the tiny gecko in the sink while washing the dishes from last night's dinner.

I welcome these few days of tropical sloth. Already today I've received 3 phone calls, 2 before 8:30am, attempting to schedule the next phases of projects. My respite here is almost always short-lived.

There is also a sense too of restriction within the peacefully manicured isolation of the compound. Kinshasa is a huge city, and a bit unknown/volatile, and especially with recent events in mind, whiteys are recommended NOT to walk through the city unattended. Which of course is limiting, as I don't have a vehicle. I've always enjoyed the liberty to walk around, and in New York I walk constantly, but here, it does feel a bit trapped.

Nonetheless, these days of resting, enjoying the wonderful company of my friend, are a wonderful start to Congo, if not a non-traditional one for me.

Also, a note: I already am without internet most days, so if I don't post as frequently or don't respond to your email right away, that's why! Don't panic :)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Corktree US Embassy Housing Compound

Epic Produce

Epic Produce by amalthya
Epic Produce a photo by amalthya on Flickr.
I was used to huge veggies in eastern DRC where the volcanic soil just makes everything grow like woa, but in central DRC the veggies were pitiful!

This cucumber purchased at Natty's Grocery in Kinshasa is clearly in the former category. My eyeballs say it all!

Choose wisely!

Choose wisely! by amalthya
Choose wisely! a photo by amalthya on Flickr.

The tomatoes on the left are local, the ones in the center are imported from South Africa and the ones on the right come from Belgium. Seriously, BELGIUM.

It's so funny to think that in the US, organic, local produce comes at a premium but here in Congo, it's the cheapest and the expectation is that some people will actually prefer to get tomatoes from huge distances away instead.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Customs at FIH

Customs at FIH
Jaunty berets make things seem much friendlier than they are.

This is my tired face.

This is my tired face.

The Belgian Floors

The Belgian Floors
The floors in the Brussels airport were giving me weird eyeball wigglies. Lack of sleep?

By the Seat of Your Pants

Hotel Sultani Hall, Gombe, Kinshasa

As we pull out of Douala International Airport in Cameroon, the mist clinging heavily to the plane windows, I cannot help but notice how empty the plane is, and what exactly will befall me once I arrive in the town many expats "lovingly" refer to as Poubelleville. AKA TRASH TOWN.

The last time I came through Kinshasa, my pickup completely garbled my name and desperately followed me around the airport, shaking a sign at me that read "M. Roland" -- I of course only learned of the error much later in the day when I was already $200 poorer, between bribes to the customs officials and the cab ride.

The air is wet and smells of burning corn when I get off the plane. It's so humid, especially in stark contrast to the plane's frozen and arid interior. It's such a familiar smell, especially once I make it down the metal stairs and the heavy wet air is mingled with the smell of pungent and thick body odor.

I don't have any problems at customs, and imagine my relief when I enter the baggage area and there is a friendly-looking gent earnestly holding a chalkboard that says "Mme. Laura"

He greets me, and I head over to the baggage carousel. The good news keeps on acomin'! Both my bags arrive after about fifteen minutes, and Jolly Mr Chalkboard escorts me into a lovely waiting room that is wood-paneled and replete with wrinkled and waterlogged magazines about global economy and world finance from 2005.

I get to chatting with a cool Portuguese business guy and when the van is finally ready to go, we've struck up a nice friendship. It's his first time ever in Congo, and it reminds me a lot of some of my first experiences. Having never before seen some of the slums and ghettos of urbanized Africa, he's shocked and horrified, and I try not to alarm him while I watch a pair of military guys shake down a matatu minibus next to us.

The main driver asks me where I'm going, and I remind him that he's got the information from my friend already, and he assures me that he's got it and everything is under control. Surprisingly, forty-five minutes later, his boss is sure that he doesn't have the address, and my poor friend is MIA, and where exactly am I going to end up?

So... I'm at a hotel. Not in my budget, but I will make due and scrimp on some other things later, I think. I ended up staying in Sergio's hotel, a funny little place in the main business district.

My first room seems to have no lights -- and, upon examination, I discovered that none of the lamps have BULBS. I asked the bellhop, a slight woman who has trouble even lifting my purse, if she could bring me some lightbulbs, so imagine my surprise when she came up twenty minutes later with a new lamp.

The bathroom was still completely dark though, and instead of just bringing me some lightbulbs, they had me change rooms.

Finally parked in one place, I am relaxing and digesting the day. Heather came by, sad to have had our meetup plans go so terribly askew, but I reassured her that if I wasn't homeless and lightbulbless, it wouldn't quite feel like Congo. I will confess to having eaten most of the peppermint patties I brought for two months in a single evening, in light of the bar being closed upon arrival.

But I am happy to be here, and safe, and will likely spend tomorrow writing emails and getting a local sim card.

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Location:Rue Romeo Vachon N,Dorval,Canada

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ice Cream in the Afternoon

11:30am US time

My head is floating in a bubble. I got to the airport a little less than 23 hours ago, and have been en route ever since. It's a lot like leap frogging, travel like this. The hour is manufactured by the automation of the lights on the plane, and the occasional rising or lowering of the tiny portal blinds.

Food and drink keeps coming and going in a fervent attempt to keep you seated and sated. The closer one gets to Africa, the older the planes get, and the weirder the food gets. I'd be willing to test the hypothesis -- the correlation between the poverty line and the hotness and freshness of the dinner rolls.

I'm not even sure what time it is wherever I am right now. The stewardess just brought us tiny containers of strawberry ice cream and I feel like some sort of decadent infant, getting ice cream indiscriminately as a reward for something I'm not aware of.

I sleep on the plane. Sometimes sitting up, sometimes flopped across my tray with my hair cascading all around me. But the sleep is punctuated by more tea and ice cream and Boeuf Etrangé avec spicy club sauce.

Once we touch down in Douala I'll know more about whether we continue onto Kinshasa. Most of the people on this plane are getting off in Cameroon, and I wonder how empty we will be, flying ahead without them all. No news is thus far good news, and my friend in Kinshasa has heard nothing more about further coup rumblings.

I will instead focus on getting through customs, and, with luck, my luggage will have arrived with me. My ride will come too, and collect me magnificently in a whisk of professionalism and take me away from the manic crowd that usually inhabits the Kinshasa airport.

This entry is sounding drug-addled... a clear sign that what I need is not strawberry ice cream but sleep.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:1.5 hours from Douala

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gird Your Loins

When I'm traveling with someone else, I'm usually giggly and flit. One of my favorite activities is the airplane can-can, humming merrily and carefree as I kick my short legs in the confined space.

This trip feels markedly different, as I gird myself, bracing for whatever may come along. Adam was upset that he would be unable to protect me on this trip, and I had to remind him that I lived in Uganda and Congo before, completely on my own, and do have, deep down, a stubbornness that refuses to submit to Africa-based shennaniganry.

I saw 127 Hours by accident last week (I went to the movies when I got locked out of my house) and I empathized a lot with the brazen mentality of assuming that everything is going to be okay. It's not a BAD assumption... it keeps you from wasting valuable time worrying, but at the same time, it's not actually TRUE.

I didn't want to let Adam know in the airport this afternoon how worried I was. Here we'd been, doing goodbyes on the presumption of "everything will be okay" when he got a call from ABC, relaying a semi-frantic message from our mutual friend in Kinshasa who had grave security concerns after this last week's coup attempt. Though the BBC reported it as a failed attempt with six deaths and several subsequent detentions, it was actually more than 100 people rushing the presidential palace. It speaks volumes for the current climate in DRC, and while the State Department is just recommending vigilance, people are nervous. My friend in Kinshasa has been told to "ready her 'go bag'". I don't think I need to explain further.

It was a bad start to the trip. All the same, I reviewed my potential options and am even now bracing myself for whatever comes. If something bad goes down within the next 24 hours, my flight will almost certainly not take off in Douala (Cameroon). I would almost certainly then fly to Brazzaville in the OTHER Congo and boat over across the Congo River into Kinshasa once things calmed down. I've got a friend in Brazzaville now, and I could probably even stop over at Tchimpounga (a chimp sanctuary) in Pointe Noire.

And if whatever might happen takes longer, during my next two weeks in Kinshasa, I will be with an American friend who works with the State Department. I've got a competent and good network in country, and good/powerful contacts out of country.

I love traveling. I would never sacrifice it. And yet right now, as I can feel the tension in myself escalating... readying for whatever comes next... I miss the airplane can-can.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Somewhere between NYC and Montreal