Archive for the 'Travel' Category

16
Jan
11

border crossing series, pt. 389

13 January, 2011, Burundi/DRC Border at Kamivira

This region plays tricks on my concept of time. Increments of fifteen and thirty minutes feel qualitatively the same. I am continuously calculating how much time I need to accomplish a task and then reducing those calculations little by little while still telling myself that the task can be accomplished. It’s like I believe infinitely in the possible, in being able to meet deadlines, reach a destination, mediate an argument, no matter the reality of my circumstances. Often, this thinking is endlessly optimistic, even more often it is abetted by a lack of structure that makes those gaps exploitable; everything is negotiable. At the highest levels, you might call it corruption, but it’s a spectrum; at the lowest levels, it’s called being resourceful or “getting shit done.”

So on my colleague, Molly’s last visit to Uvira on the other side of the border with Burundi on Lake Tanganyika, we had planned to head back to Burundi at 5:30 p.m. Goodbyes, handshakes, hugs and photo-taking mean we actually left at 5:46. And suddenly, even by my calculations, it strikes me that it was a ridiculous amount of time to drive back out of the NGO quarter, weave our way through town, connect to the road that leads to the border, get our passports stamped and cross no-man’s land back to the Burundi side – this was 14 minutes after all, not 15; the whole process usually takes about an hour. Any one of those parts could take at least 20 minutes. And even though there were several announcements during the year with much fanfare about the relaxing of border regulations and longer opening times, we checked and found out the border still closes at 6 p.m. There might be no negotiating on that point, I think, which then might lead to serious “negotiatin’.” Belt, ignition, lights, gas!

The drive is a blur – a rambling, muddy, splashy “pole pole!” blur. I’m one hand on the horn the whole time, the other all a-flickin’ the brights, spinning the wheel, eyes scanning for every possible danger. Bicycles, motorcycles, carts, policemen, UN vehicles, trucks, buses – who knew there would be rush hour in Uvira!

It is exactly 14 minutes when we crossed the first gate into the Congolese immigration section. Beyond the second gate is no-man’s land, the strip of fertile emptiness that divides Burundi and the Congo in our little corner of the world, and beyond that, the gate back to Burundi. Home. We are still in our car and it looks like we have just entered the parking lot from Hell. The last herd of vehicles crossing back after a day of commerce in Burundi has spilled over from the other side. The cars  and buses are so solidly arrayed, there’s only enough room for humans to wriggle by. I find a narrow path for the car but there’s no room to park the car to the side and walk to the row of immigration offices on our right. At the same time, I am scheming, thinking of things to say to shorten the immigration process. I’m amazed I even think this is possible, and I feel a bit guilty but I couldn’t worry about that then; this is the context in which I live and work.

I haven’t rolled up ten meters when all of a sudden I hear, “Jefferson, traverse directement le frontier!” This is like “Advance to Go” in Monopoly, but better. Skip everything and just go. At an international border. I turn my head in time to see my old friend and immigration officer, Fazuli, both arms stretched out toward Burundi, pointing frantically, face full of concern. He’s hatless, has no time for another word and runs off somewhere. It’s just chaos. I do what he says and drive right up to the second gate. An incoming car gets the gate up and just as I’m about to blow through to the other side, a sharp woman’s voice yells at me to stop. I step on the brakes. Another immigration officer. The game is up; she scolds me and demands our documents. Surely, she is going to take them to the immigration office to log by hand and then stamp. “Immigration Procedures – Lose 15 Minutes. Go back three spaces and spend the night in Uvira.” This would be a disastrous result because Molly leaves Burundi for good the next day and there is a ton of wrap-up she needs to do. The loss of an evening and morning would derail the entire process. So it is pure honey-colored joy when the officer glances at our passports, doesn’t even try with my inch-thick document and hands them back to us with a smile. I shake her hand at the same time I step on the gas. We’re off! Home!

Home. But they locked the door. Figuratively. More accurately, they tied the string. When they tie a string across an opening, like a bridge, that’s the warning – the way is closed. In this case, some random non-uniformed person unties it for us to pass. We get on the short narrow metal bridge and travel the 20 meters across only to be halted by a real gate. The officer manning the gate is in a blue beret and matching poncho and he is doing his best to nonchalantly ignore us. He would turn away, stare briefly past our car and then look at the ground again. Another officer, a big fella, in light blue shirt sleeves has come out of the immigration office to watch. I haven’t been in a situation quite like this one. Sort of a half-hearted farce coupled with willful inactivity. Something needed to give. I hop out of the car, and ask Molly to move to the driver’s side, just in case.

Poncho quickly moves toward me and gives me a firm “The border is closed, you can’t cross, etc. etc.” I don’t really hear him because I can quickly see he’s not the problem. Poncho takes his orders from the Big Guy. I ignore Poncho, swing my legs over the gate and head straight toward Mr. Big.

I start walking toward the large officer with all the deliberateness of someone approaching a hibernating bear. In a steady straight line, concentrating. Except, he’s not hibernating – he’s in full-blooded anger mode, yelling at me to turn the car back before I’m even within 10 meters of him. I get closer. For some reason, I believe if I can get near enough to this raging hulk, I can explain to him exactly why we have to cross and he would listen. At this point, I have to believe in something, I tell myself. Now in front of the still blustering officer, I imagine myself standing in front of a roaring lion, fangs bared – probably not open to reasoned dialogue. I wonder if he is going to eat me.

“TURN AROUND!!! YOU ARE NOT ENTERING THE COUNTRY! YOU WILL TURN AROUND AND LEAVE RIGHT NOW! RIGHT NOW!!!”

But it’s all a show right? A show of authority, a show of power, a show. So I can show no weakness, no uncertainty, no grammatical errors, and to an extent, no emotion: no sarcasm, no indignation, no fear.

I direct a string of soothing declarations at him. “We are aid workers. We were told to cross the border. My colleague needs to catch a flight (tomorrow). I understand we are a minute late. That is why I got out of the car to speak with you. I don’t understand your anger.”

The point is not content – like so many things in this region, it’s about style, appearance. By this point, his objections were verging on the bizarre.

“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO COME BACK! WHY DID YOU LEAVE THE COUNTRY?”

What? Why I left has nothing to do with me coming back. It’s not a ‘why’ issue. I say, “You are right – I should have never crossed the border!” It’s turning into a farce, and it would have, except at that moment as the conversation was descending into nonsense, we both catch a surreal sight in our peripheral vision. Slowly, as if it were the most normal and cordial thing, Poncho gently lifts the gate and Molly guides the vehicle at a slow soft roll in front of the immigration office.

We’re both gawking with our eyes, Mr. Big and me, but our mouths are still churning out bullshit. I think it’s at that moment that he realizes he has lost. Somehow, he loses his communication authority over Poncho who, perhaps in a moment of civility or weakness, decides to let Molly just enter. I thought they had worked this scheme out, but whatever, we are back and there is no point in delaying the inevitable. Mr. Big thinks the same, grabs our passports and stalks off into the immigration office. I join him after a few moments and find Mr. Big at his desk in the now very dark office. (Electricity at an international border post? Nope!). He is holding his cell phone up as a light to the passport registry to fill it out. “Take,” he says and I hold up the light. I’m amazed to see my hand trembling a little. No one likes getting yelled at, no matter how calm you try to be. I close my eyes and tell my hand to stop. I reopen my eyes and the hand isn’t shaking anymore – I think – it’s too dark to tell. When the officer is done recording our info, he folds up the passports and hands them to me with a faint smile. We shake hands. The joining of hands – symbolic applause. The show is over.

I take our passports back and move back to the car. I love their weight in my hand.
In the last three years, I have added pages to my passport three times, the last time incurring a stern warning that I would have to get a brand new passport next time. My passport has graduated from being a pass’port’ to being a pass’book’. “Is that your passport in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Well, both.

I am still moved by the “Welcome Home” the U.S. immigration officer inevitably offers before spending several moments locating a spot to stamp my passport. I still want to respond with a robust “Thanks!” but now I feel guilty, like I can see the doubt in their eyes. Welcome home, they say (pause, looks at all the stamps), but what the heck were you doing abroad?

It’s a somewhat cliché device, but after all the trips to the Congo, each one memorable and recorded with a stamp, the one I’ll never forget is the one I didn’t get.

A part of me is still there.

Officially.

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07
Aug
09

gorillas

May 2, 2009

I’m standing at the bottom of a slope in Kahuzi-Biega National Park west of Bukavu in the DRC, dirt splattered all over my pants and for the second time in two months I am  witnessing my car flopping around in the mud. I think back to Nyungwe Forest in April when Martina and I drove to Rwanda to see chimps and just to get away from Burundi. We picked up Sarah from Scotland at the Park Ranger station (some foreshadowing perhaps – I had a ticket to Scotland for the following month). On the downhill drive into the park, we had no problems despite it being rainy season. The park’s tourist numbers confirm that April is the least popular month to visit but I highly recommend it if you want to see new landscapes and gorgeous cloud patterns every five minutes.

NyungweForest1

NyungweForest2

Anyway, of course, we didn’t have any issues getting to the park – we just slid downhill on the tire tracks other vehicles had carved into the yellow mud. Coming back uphill was a predictable catastrophe that no one really bothered to think about. The trip had seemed like such a brilliant idea until that point. Then things got cagey. I had run out of candy.

NyungweStuck

This was how the exit route looked.

NyungweStuck2

We tried putting logs into the tracks, we tried piling leaves under the car. I took out my machete to hack and to dig. We tried a lot of pretty silly things but with only the three of us and the Park Ranger, we didn’t move a yard. Finally, we convinced the Ranger to call his buddies and also to send for help from a nearby village. We waited for about 20 “Rwandan minutes,” which we were shocked to discover was only 15 ‘European minutes’. And then help arrived. Boy, did it arrive. Or I should say: boys. Lots and lots of barefoot giggly boys. We got to see chimps in their natural environement, a rainforest. The boys got to see foreigners in their natural environement, helplessly flailing in the mud. Fair enough. Everyone got to go home happy.

More Rangers arrived. Martina marshalled the whole group by shouting encouragements in a language no one really understood (Italian?) until she was laughing too hard to help push. Half the team pushed the car from behind, the other half pulled it by the grill on the front. The team rocked the car back and forth over each bump until it slowly gained enough momentum and traction to get going. But once it did pick up speed, I didn’t want to stop again so Sarah, Martina and our guide piled into the moving vehicle and I didn’t let up on the gas pedal until we were back on pavement. The car looked like hell. Probably the branches I crashed through did also. And then there was the rescue team:

NyungweTeam

All this flashes through my mind as I watch my Land Cruiser get a gentle nudge back up the hill so we can leave it on the drier part of the trail and hike toward the gorillas, the eastern lowland silverback gorillas. I love saying that. We’re a total of six hikers, one guide, and at least six Congolese soldier-turned-rangers. I hear some of the soldiers served under the Congolese Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda and had been integrated into the Congolese forces. That’s good, I guess, as all reports suggest they are really effective soldiers. In all, there are actually only three civilians – our guide, Carlos, Martina and me. The other four hikers sheepishly identify themselves as “Information Specialists” for the U.S. further north in Goma. I glance sidways at one in a black cap, impenetrable shades, a black tactical vest and menacing (black) boots. “Information? Oh, are you a writer?” Martina asks.

It’s a really refreshing hike. It’s still early in the morning and the Congolese landscape is awesome. The air’s clean, it’s not too hot – the climate isn’t really the problem for this country. We hike for about an hour when all of a sudden, a guerilla!

Gorillas4

Last known photo of the hikers before they see gorillas.

Gorillas5

The guerilla helpfully estimates that we are about several more minutes hike from the gorillas. He also tells us that we should always keep seven to ten meters between ourselves and the male or we might offend him. We learn the guerilla’s teammates have been radioing back and forth on the gorillas’ locations so he has seen them. All we have to do is turn right along the trail and hike a bit further. We take literally five steps after the turn when all of a sudden, gorillas!

Gorilla1

Gorillas2

At first, I don’t understand what is happening. I expected more hiking. I also expected more distance than two meters. When we got our pep talk, we must have already been inside seven meters of the gorillas. What I see is a semicircle trained on a small scene, almost like a stage. I’m confused because on the edges of this scene, just inches from a large female and her kids, are two or three rangers hacking away with sharp machetes, stripping the trees of branches and leaves. Then I realize they are clearing the space for us so we could see the gorillas better. Pretty quickly, we ask about the distance and the disturbance we are causing but Carlos explains that the rangers and gorillas are familiar with each other and if the gorillas were irritated by us, they would let us know. Everyone, gorillas and humans, also know that the law here is Chimanuka, the kingly male off to the left. He is essentially tolerating us because if he really wanted to, he could flatten all of us in a heartbeat. We are the ones that have to be totally respectful. At the moment, I am totally respectful of his eating every leaf around him. That’s about as far as our relationship gets. We don’t share a beer or anything, but he does end up tolerating us for more than an hour as we follow him deeper and deeper into the jungle.

Gorilla_Back

Gorillas6

Gorillas3

I’ve only uploaded a couple photos of the gorillas because this is ultimately not something I could show you well. Anyone can see images of gorillas anywhere, but there is so much more to it. It’s humbling and majestic and frightening and exciting and even a little sad, all at the same time. I would just muck it up; the experience deserves better than my telling of it. It would be hard to retell the stories we exchange while hiking or describe the flowers we smell. The enormity of Chimanuka’s frame, his fists that are the size of my torso, his commanding grunts. The little ones, interacting with us, dangling from branches, swinging by in the surrounding trees. Putting all of it onto a blog is really not why I went.

What I do support is tourism in the Congo. If you get the chance to visit, I recommend tours led by Carlos from the Co-Co Lodge, located in Bukavu. He has been there for a long time, so he knows the terrain and he knows the people. You can contact him at lodgecoco@kivu-online.com

You might mention Jeff and Martina from Bujumbura said hello, but I can’t be responsible for what happens next. Carlos was the one who had to get my car out of the mud.

02
Aug
09

prehistoric time travel

I guess the first thing I should mention is that I am, in fact, not dead. Long periods of silence tend to create some outrageous rumors, like the idea that I would actually let myself die here. Humanitarian crisis created by a boneheaded U.N.-led operation? Rampant Interhamwe rebels, Congolese soldiers and militianmen raping, killing, burning and being generally unruly?
Please.

Instead, travel back in time with me to May 2, 2009, when I traveled back in time to 40 million B.C. Co-conspirator Martina and I are in Bukavu in the DRC. We’re at the Hotel de la Roche (the “Roach Hotel”) having some lunch after seeing eastern lowland silverback gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park (which I’ll write about separately), when we’re joined by the cast of Disney’s new theatrical production, “Congo.” We are swarmed by a flock of mini-turkeys, something resembling a peacock on cocaine and our favorite, a shoebill. The shoebill is unlike any creature I have ever seen. Its slate-blue beak could keep me mesmerized for hours. It also really does look like a shoe, but the kind of shoe you would wear if you wanted to get beaten up in high school. We respond to this fascinating bird the only way humans know how when confronted by an astonishing creature: we try to hunt him. Martina and I take turns creeping as close as we could to the guy. We first track him and stare, hoping to build up some telepathic rapport. Then we move in for the kill. Here’s a visual narrative of our attempts.

BirdWatching1

BirdWatching2

It takes a little while but I have a good trick for getting right up to the shoebill.
(Photos by Martina)

BirdHunt1

BirdHunt2

BirdHunt3

BirdHunt7

BirdHunt4

BirdHunt8

BirdHunt9

BirdHunt10

BirdHunt12

Eventually, I lay down right next to him(?). There aren’t any serious objections, just some curious glances (from the hotel staff, too). I think he was completely fooled by my blue camouflage.

Next: Gorillas! And, guerillas!

Still alive, still alive, thanks…

20
Feb
09

masters of the moustache

January 27 – 31, 2009

I traveled to Addis Ababa at the end of January partly for work, partly because I wanted to see Addis (and eat Italian food). A quick story about a taxi ride will give a good idea about most of my trip, excluding sleeping on the roof of the Taitu hotel, oldest in Ethiopia. I quickly learned that its age is not a virtue. Room door won’t shut? Is there a problem?

addisdoor

Hotel rooftop view:

addisroof

In pursuit of the great Bug:

addisbug

Most taxis in Addis start relatively high with prices but the toothy old man garbed in a dusty old blazer doesn’t even try to bring up my price. He just ponders it for a second and says, “Let’s go.” Actually, I’m not sure he said that, but I imagine he did because I’m in the car and he starts it up to get us moving. He ignites the car by reaching under the steering wheel where there is a port for the key dangling from a few wiry whiskers. I notice and wonder about the little plastic purple switch also hanging near the wheel. We’re not two minutes into the ride when he somehow does not see an oncoming car and tries to turn left. I’m starting to realize I stay pretty calm in situations when I’m sure I’m about to die; I don’t even blink. Well, the car doesn’t hit us, we miraculously escape, blah blah blah, but then the driver starts apologizing profusely to me and to the other driver. He bows his head low with each apology, but he is still trying to drive! I put my head in my hands – crash position – I’m going to be ready next time.

There might have been a next time if we didn’t start moving uphill because he stops us on the incline. I look over at him and he’s already getting out. “Sorry,” he vaguely gestures, “sorry.” He pops open the hood and runs into a house on the right. He comes back out with a jugful of water, presumably with permission, and starts pouring it all over the engine block. Hissing steam rises up. He then pries open a valve and it explodes in a geyser of brown scalding water. He gives a shriek that is equal parts delight and terror and waits until the spring gives out. Then he pours in the water from the jug, waits, pours again. When he is out of water, he leans in, puts his mouth to the valve and starts blowing. Over and over again, he gives CPR to the car. This goes on for about fives minutes before water starts gushing out at another place under the hood.

I somehow manage to pull my eyes away from this fascinating scene long enough to notice that another taxi has pulled to a stop in front of us. I do not notice the box on top until a group of wailing women run out from a nearby house and surround the car. They take turns lunging forward to reach the box while several men untie its ropes and carry it down. I then realize it’s a short narrow coffin. The women throw themselves at the car, to the ground, and shriek impossibly loud. I don’t think I know very much about grief but I hadn’t seen anything like this. One woman though was slumped on her knees next to the car, hardly moving while the rest followed the box into the house. I could tell from the way the others did not look at her that she was the one closest to the deceased, perhaps the mother or the spouse.

I try not to stare at any point during the moving of the coffin and it is while turning to my right that I see a young man in a little shack with a large pile of branches with bright green leaves on them. The branches are all rolled up in bundles and I ask him to come over to the taxi to show them to me. He looks around, leans in and makes a chewing expression. Of course! Khat! Or ‘qat’, which is one of the 24 or so ‘Q’ without ‘U’ words allowed in Scrabble. I’m thinking of buying some when the driver hops back in, grin all a-toothy. He sees the vendor, asks a question, then grimaces and says “No no no…” I take it to mean he disapproves of the mild stimulant so I give up the idea of buying any. I’m rewarded by the driver reaching under for the purple plastic switch, which I now realize is a doorbell button. He presses it and the car gives out a triumphant whimper. Eekeek! Look out, we are going to make it to the top of this hill!

As we continue on, he starts telling me about khat, how to prepare it, what to drink while chewing it, and it’s then that I realize he was making faces at the vendor not because he had moral misgivings about khat but because the price was too high. He wanted me to pay $2.30 for a bunch instead of $2.50. I really like that he hardly cared what I paid for the fare but twenty cents more for khat? No deal. No way.

addisuniv

The University has added-significance for me because I have heard a lot about it from my previous job: working with asylum seekers fleeing persecution. Student becomes activist becomes asylum seeker. Evolution.

 

so so wrong...

so so wrong...

 

I was thrilled by the paintings in the Gondarine style. I didn’t take photos of the paintings but this sign breaks down the innovations within the style and the various schools that emerged.

addismoustache

“Masters of Sagging Cheeks.”

 

Next: Burundi – An update about the place I actually live in.

18
Feb
09

bujumbura + 17 hours = stockholm

Not having updated in exactly two months, I’m going to move quickly to catch up. If some of these posts bring up more questions than they answer, you will just have to ask me when you see me.

First, I was in Sweden (Stockholm and Kiruna) for New Year’s. Dog sledding, lingonberry anything, blueberry pie, cloudberry jam – I crashed a snowmobile (and was almost abandoned), ate soft-serve mashed potatoes, saw some of the most amazing scenery this planet can offer, learned that toughness has something to do with cold climates, stayed in a prison, looked at an old boat, slept in a hotel made of ice and bought a funny hat.

stockholm1

kiruna_crash

kiruna2

kiruna3

That really doesn’t cover it at all but this self-portrait will have to do for now:

stockholm_pig

18
Dec
08

business trip, pt. three: the good bandit

backing up a bit…

November 12-14, 2008 – Bukavu, DRC

I like shaking hands. I like what it can or cannot tell me, the little bit of human contact, the absurd formality of the gesture. Sometimes when I’m leaving the house, I shake hands with the guards. On this particular occasion, it feels different. I have just told the guys I am going to the Congo for a few days. They look at the ground or just around, but not at me when we shake, and the grip lasts a little longer than usual. Not much, but just enough that I can tell they’re thinking something. I ask about it, and Dieudonné tilts his head and shrugs.

“Muri Congo, hari indwano.”

I am about to ask what ‘indwano’ is when I realize it can only be one thing. In the Congo, there is war. That’s what it was – the handshake felt like a farewell.

I say, “Oya, i Goma hari indwano. Ngiye i Bukavu. Hariya, nta indwano iriho.” No, in Goma there is war. I am going to Bukavu. There, there is no war.

I realize the skeptical looks I get have nothing to do with my Kirundi (because it’s perfect?).

“Urugendo rywiza.” Have a beautiful trip.

And I do.

The drive through southwestern Rwanda is one of my favorite so far. But before I get there I have to revisit the scene of an earlier drama. About four months ago, I crossed at this border with my colleague, Sean. We took a bus together but while Sean had no problems getting through immigration into Rwanda, I had to resort to somewhat dubious tactics. I’m wondering if the issue might resurface so I decide I better preempt the issue.

I walk up to a short policeman who has the familiarity of being someone I should avoid.

I ask, “We know each other, no?”
“…Yes?”

Good, he doesn’t remember me that well. I tell him that yes, we met a few months ago when I passed through here and he helped me a lot. He likes hearing that, and happily stamps my passport. I make a note to shut up before he really does remember. 

There is very little fuss when I pull up to the border barrier. The guard lifts up the gate for me to pass. Where are you going, he asks. To Bukavu, I say.

“Woooh, courage!”

The Rwandan border post only has one officer present. It also only has one visitor present: me. I want to get going so I can arrive in Bukavu before dark, but the Rwandan officer has invoked Obama. However, unlike every other person so far, the officer is not effusive about Obama being elected. Or it seems so at first. We spend a good 20 minutes going over the possible scenarios for disappointment from an Obama presidency. It’s actually kind of refreshing. At the end, however, the officer reveals himself to be an enthusiastic supporter, just more grounded and analytical than others. The border post is a waste of his talents.

After the border, there is an uphill road that bends  and opens upon a glorious panaorama. The road isn’t too good, which gives me reason to slow down to admire the view. In the distance, I can see a shimmering grey veil of rain moving across the bright green tea fields. The sky ahead gets darker. I speed up to beat the rain so I can get to Bukavu before it gets too muddy. As I increase my speed, I glance in the rear view mirror and notice a gray pick-up truck. It recedes as I accelerate.

I’m zipping along, noticing how much quicker Rwandans are than Burundians to react to an oncoming vehicle when I see the gray pick-up behind me again. It is diligently trying to catch up to. It is somewhat effective. Not quite Nabokov’s darting spider in the rearview mirror – maybe more like a manatee. Then I see the truck’s headlights flash, kind of. They are so weak I barely notice them in the daylight. I figure the driver is just trying to pass me. I slow down a bit and the vehicle keeps approaching until we are almost bumper-to-bumper. He makes no attempt to move around me. The lights wink again. I see an arm reach out the driver side and wave at me. It seems to be making the universal gesture for “Pull the hell over, I’ve been chasing you for the last 10km!”

A young man in a hip black t-shirt and a badge hanging around his neck on a chain gets out of the truck. I ask him who he is, and he says he is a police officer. There are a lot of reasons not to believe him but instead I just register curiosity. Huh, I think, in Rwanda, the police have cars.

The officer instructs me to go back to the border post. I offer to follow him but he says no, he will follow me. The drive back is no less scenic and several times, I slow down so the gray truck can catch up.

At the border station, the Immigration Officer that stamped my passport is standing at the top of the steps and smiling as I pull up. I get out of my car, beaming, like we are sharing some private joke. He must have realized what happened once his colleagues took off in tepid pursuit. He reaches out to shake my hand – no problem, no problem, he tells me, excuse me, I didn’t know you had a vehicle. You need an entry card for it.

When the apprehending officer pulls up, he sees me talking to his colleague, who then explains quickly what happened. The young officer is smirking when he gestures me into his office. No problem, no problem.

In the office, there is an Obama photo that someone printed out. I ask who printed it out, and the officer, my new friend, says he did. I smile. Too easy. I should be back on the road in two minutes. I just hope they don’t notice I had to make a “correction” on my insurance documents.

I’m getting near the Congo/Rwanda border now. I see a sign for Ruzizi I, Ruzizi being the river that divides the two countries. I’m not sure where Ruzizi II is, but remembering that I crossed at II last time, I search in vain for the sign to Ruzizi II. Apparently, you can only get to Ruzizi II if you already know where it is. I thought I would give Ruzizi I a try anyway just to compare – boy, was that a mistake.

I get to the border and walk up to the immigration window on the Rwandan side. I answer all the usual questions: Where are you going? For how long? What are you doing there? Do you have a job for me?

I get back in the car and pass the gates. The moment I am through, it’s like I’ve jumped dimensions. The smooth Rwandan road has been transformed into a broken mud-path. Women with giant baskets on their heads line the roadsides. Porters stoop under sacks that say 50kg on them, staggering one by one up the mountainside. Mud mud, everywhere.

At the Congo border station, the chief, Dismas, invites me into his office and chats a while with me. I soothe his incredulity that I am in fact American. He tells me he likes my name, and then asks if I know where his name comes from. I say no and he tells me the Biblical significance of Dismas. Dismas is the thief who is redeemed at the last moment of his life when he repents and reaches out to Jesus. Dismas means the “good bandit.” I say, I’ve met many Dismas’ in the Congo, many ‘good bandits’. This incarnation of Dismas says, yes, it is a good story, and, do not forget, I am Dismas, the good bandit. I’ll bet you are!

Once I escape from Dismas’ office, I realize “escape” is never that easy. I walk back up the muddy road, everyone stopping what they’re doing to stare at me. I climb into my truck and have just enough time to put on my seat belt when suddenly the passenger side door and the back seat doors pop open all at once and three men climb in. They’re laughing and chatting, like they don’t even notice me.

I barely manage, “What are you doing?!?!”
“We need a ride into town.”
“Good, go find a taxi. Who are you???”
“We work for the government. It is very muddy today so we do not want to walk.”
“No, get out of my car!”
“It is not far”/”You can drop us in town”/(laugh laugh laugh) Repeat five times.
I only relent when I look over to the man in the passenger seat and notice he is cupping a new Barbie-pink plastic cell phone in his hands. Is that your new phone, I ask?
Ha ha, no, it is a toy for my daughter. I think, that phone must get to his daughter. Finally, I say, “Ok, if you think this is a taxi, I am charging each of you 300 francs (about 60 cents).”
Silence.
The guys look at one another, unsure how to react. Ha ha?
Ha! 

I stay at Hotel La Roche, which could be loosely translated as “The Roach Hotel.” The last time I stayed here with Sean and they stuck us up in an attic double. This time I manage even worse: an attic single with exposed panels of insulation (asbestos?) and a ceiling that makes me reconsider verticality as an evolutionary advantage.

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Down in the courtyard, I stand around to admire the lake and the bizarre elephant and bald eagle sculptures the hotel just doesn’t seem to want to get rid of. Total class.

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I recall the last time I was here, a helicopter landed on the lawn where I’m standing. Lake Kivu is just amazing.

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As I’m admiring the lake view, two other guests start talking to me. Inevitably, we talk about the violence raging in Goma, just across the lake. Remembering that Laurent Nkunda’s rebels briefly took Bukavu in 2004, I ask if that will happen this time. The men give a surprising answer. What is happening in Goma, they say, is the Americans’ fault. And the rebels will kill all Americans. Then they will come here and kill everyone. But not you.
Not me? Just me? But I’m American, I say.
Oh, they will kill you then. Ha ha. Obama! 
Ha? 

In the last six months, I’ve been told I will be killed more than in all previous 27 years combined (junior high doesn’t count). I don’t take most of the remarks very seriously, but no matter how many times I hear it, it still gives me pause; I feel my smile freeze up and become awkward. Dying is not really the issue; it is much more likely I will get flattened by a car/truck/Land Cruiser/motorcycle/cow. Rather, it’s knowing that someone would actually *want* to kill me and also knowing that being killed by people with intent here does not simply mean dying, but something much worse. It’s just not a very happy thought. The conversation ends soon after.

So I’m here in Bukavu to wrap up registration for Heartland. I have a handwritten letter from George in Kinshasa and a phone number for his contact. But first, I give George a call to let him know that I did make it to Bukavu, as promised. He recognizes my voice instantly (I’m still always surprised when that happens). I’m equal parts delight at speaking to George and amazement that the call actually made it across the Congo. Don’t worry, George tells me, you will get registered. It will happen because I am working for you.

Two more calls, several quick meetings, and yes, George, Heartland is registered to begin operations in the Congo. Thank you, friend.

I have one other objective in mind. It’s kind of a long shot given how I only have two hours left in Bukavu before I have to leave to get back to Burundi at a reasonable hour. I have a Burundi driver’s license already, but the Congo requires another one and people are starting to catch on that my Illinois card is not the International License, despite my assurances (“See, it’s in English. And that’s me.”). As Bukavu is the provincial capital, I should be able to get a license here. On the way to the Bureau de Roulage (the Office of Rolling?), a policeman stops me and demands to see my license. I tell him I am on my way to get one. He tells me he can help because his dad works in the Bureau de Roulage. Uh huh. I tell him I like his helmet.

At the Bureau de Roulage, I reach the second floor and find a man sitting at a small desk. I ask him about getting a license and how long it would take. He takes my money and tells me he’ll call in an hour when it’s ready. Even I find that too easy, so I ask again.
Can you do it?
Yes, no problem, he replies. The money goes in the front shirt pocket and I’m relieved. It’ll get done because he’s going to do it himself. It’ll get done because he just got paid.
I’m not surprised when about two hours later, he calls me and asks me to meet him on the street corner. 

The document is far better than I had ever hoped. I had seen the licenses in Kinshasa and they were shiny laminated things, but in Bukavu, they do not waste. My license displays its origins proudly: “Republic of Zaire: Unity, Work, Progress.” It could also read – “Republic of Zaire: Best. Souvenir. Ever.”

On my way out of town, I pull up to the policeman that stopped me earlier. I flash my new license and he says, yes, that is good. It is okay now.

The drive back to Bujumbura is a little harrowing and annoying, not least because I can’t find my way out of Bukavu’s muddy back roads. I also  have to contend with a completely inept policeman who sends me the wrong way. There isn’t too much else I really want or need to say about the rest of the drive. I did take a self-portrait along the way though. It was completely dark when I took the photo but the miracle of flash photography comes through once again. (I realize, maybe this might have been the that photo? The one where, as I’m holding the camera up, I wonder if it will find its way to people that need to see it.)

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09
Nov
08

business trip, part one

October 28, 2008 – Nairobi

The logic of the Congo goes something like this: As I live in Bujumbura in Burundi, just 20km from the eastern border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I must fly east all the way to Nairobi, Kenya, before I can catch a flight west across the continent to Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC.

Flights to Nairobi and to Kinshasa are both morning flights so I have to overnight in Kenya on both legs. That gives me a little time to check out Nairobi. The first thing I notice about the Nairobi Kenyatta International Airport is that it has electricity. Not only does the airport have electricity, but it uses an outrageous amount even during the day, mostly on advertising devices. It feels disorienting, a little intrusive – I suddenly miss Burundi.

In the taxi into town, Bernard the driver asks if it’s my first time to Kenya. I say yes. Just a few minutes out of the airport, we pass a wide open field on the left. Bernard turns his head in that direction and says, “Look over there. Giraffes.”

For some reason, I hear “cows” instead so I glance over quickly and mumble my assent.
Bernard is surprised I’m not surprised so he repeats himself.
I look up.“Oh my goodness! Giraffes! What are they doing there? Is that a park? How did they get there??”
“No, they are just there.”
Giraffes. Just there. My. Goodness.
Bernard slows the car slightly, and I stare. They’re beautiful. Their necks, they crane them, smooth and slender and strong. And they are just there, chomping on grass, watching the cars go by. It’s a little overwhelming; I’m not sure what to say. 

“Are there elephants, too?”

I end up spending a good deal of my time in Nairobi in an internet café, repeatedly jamming the printer with all the documents I have to create for the Kinshasa part of my trip. Other highlights include seeing Obama’s mug everywhere and feeling very anxious inside a 24-hour supermarket. The superabundance, the flourescent lights, the squeakiness of tiles, metal racks and too many colors. It makes me think of the Clash song, “Lost in the Supermarket.”

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily.
I came in here for the special offer
Guaranteed personality.

What else? There’s also fabulous Indian food and decent coffee in Nairobi. One of the more interesting things for me was walking around the city and noticing parallels with Hong Kong, where I was born and lived for seven years before moving away. Kenya, like Hong Kong, was a British Colony before gaining independence in 1963. For me, they both have the same feel. The ultra-urban landscape and patterns, the similar signage, the suffocating pollution, the streetside newspaper stands – it all added up to a feeling of familiarity, of…Home.

These photos could be of Hong Kong, too (with a little imagination):

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But probably not this one:

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October 29, 2008 – Kinshasa

I was warned that Kinshasa’s Ndjili Airport is a “nightmare.” My Bradt guidebook (yea, a guidebook on the Congo – good luck!) says it can be “a harrowing experience” and to be prepared for “a shock of the senses the moment you depart from the aircraft.” Such dire warnings – I was totally curious. How bad could it be? What could they possibly do? It doesn’t take long for me to find out.

Congo’s air industry does not have a good safety record at all. I’ve been on planes where people applaud after we have completed a safe landing but Kinshasa is the first airport I’ve landed in where people start clapping before all the wheels have even hit the tarmac. Small victories indeed.

When we disembark, I notice it’s very hot, very humid, and I don’t recognize any of the insignia on the planes. Air Zimbabwe? Really? The airport itself is a Mobutu-era artifact, meaning it’s large, dysfunctional and crumbling. It’s also mustard yellow with sky blue trim – the national colors. As the passengers walk together toward the terminal, everyone is watching. And there are lots of ‘everyone’: policemen, soldiers, baggage handlers, guy with a bicycle – just people everywhere. At the entrance to the terminal, there is a mass of policemen and women blocking the way, checking everyone’s passport and vaccination cards. Other police are nudging the passengers along, yelling out contradictory instructions, messing up lines. Chaos. When I hand over my passport, a hulking policeman with sleek sunglasses and a beret takes it, flips through the pages, then snaps it shut and says, “You wait over there. We have to verify your passport.” There are no computers anywhere. Verify how? Oh oh, “verify” it. I enter the terminal and wait by the side.

I’m not exactly sure what to do next because I’m the first one they’ve held up but within five minutes, an impressive group of obvious foreigners are waiting with me. There’s an Angolan, a Middle Easterner, an Eritrean, a group of Chinese, others. Slowly, each person or group is escorted off after a few questions. And suddenly there I am again, alone, with no passport and a host of soldiers and police circling. All the other passengers have cleared and left. In no time, about eight or nine police and plain clothes security agents have surrounded me. They start interrogating me about my trip, accusing me of this or that. I say I am there to meet with government officials about my organization working in the Congo (true). I say I am the regional head of mission of an American NGO (partially true – I am the only representative in the region at the moment). They respond by asking where my invitation is. It goes on and on. I think I do all right answering them but sometimes the questions are just so ridiculous, I’m not sure how to answer. I make a small mistake by looking at the wrong eye of an officer (it was damaged) and kick myself for it. Things are looking kind of grim and I wonder if I will ever get out of there.

And this is how Barack Obama saved my life.

There are two things I congratulate myself for bringing with me to Africa: my Arsenal soccer jersey and my Obama ‘08 button. I have the button pinned to my shoulder bag so it often hangs behind me. This time at the airport, the bag is hanging to my side. With so many police around, one of them was bound to see the pin. That is what I was hoping for and that is just what happens. It turns out to be the policeman with the damaged eye.

“Eh, Obama! You like Obama?”

I launch into an explanation that I would repeat many times over the next week: I voted for Obama. Barack Obama is a Senator in Illinois and lives in Chicago. I’m from Chicago. Obama supports my organization (true, and so does Senator Durbin, but that’s not relevant right now).

The now very excited policeman is telling his colleagues how much he likes Obama. He is thrilled I support Obama, too. Some of his colleagues are still skeptical; I even have to pull out my license to show them that I lived in Chicago. But soon after, the excited officer vouches for what I say and says, “See, he is from Chicago, he likes Obama. Oh, I like Obama so much! It’s ok, he is an American and he voted for Obama.” My new friend.

He guides me to the passport check point. An officer behind the counter takes my passport. He picks up a pair of glasses and unfolds the one remaining arm to put them on. He uses both hands like the glasses have both arms. They sit on a slant.

The officer tells me it is very difficult in the Congo. I mentally roll my eyes – it’s really awful of me. He is right that it’s miserable there, but I am so innured by the phrase now because I’ve learned that it’s an opening to an overture for money. The officer then asks me what I do and I use the French word for aid worker: “humanitaire.” He leans back and says, “Oh, you work for humanity, but you don’t even help out those are most in need. You only work for Humanity, but you really should help human beings, like me.” I tell him, “I’m so sorry, but unfortunately for you, I’m the kind of humanitarian who only helps women and children, and you’re neither, I believe.” The friendly officer has a good laugh at his colleague and grabs my passport back for me. He doesn’t leave my side again and says he will help me find a taxi because some of the taxi drivers are bad men who cheat. I quietly accept my fate and we move on.

Thirty minutes and several checkpoints later, I have my bag and am looking for a taxi. Turns out the policeman is not much help getting a taxi. How about that, right? The drivers pull out tattered photocopies of a list of prices and destinations. They are asking for $50 to go into town. I tell them the paper looks a bit old, so that must be the old price. What’s the price today?

I finally find a guy who will take me for $20, the right price according to several people in the baggage claim area (people who also couldn’t believe I would take a taxi in the first place). In the front seat is a woman who is also headed into town. I chat a few more moments with the officer, then slip him two one-dollar bills. Is that a bribe? A bribe would have cost much more and would have come earlier. And he would have asked for it. He didn’t, and he really was quite helpful. I would call that a tip (or ‘backpay’). You can decide. Meanwhile, I am getting the hell out of that airport.

As I am about to get in the taxi, a man calls out to me. He points at my Obama button and says, “That, I need that.”
I look at the button, then up at him and smile. “No, friend, you, you want it – I need it.”




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