Saturday, March 11, 2017

dinner with french people

going out to dinner with a french guy in Congo:
"what red wine do you have?" he asks the waiter
well, there's a bordeaux...
"bring me all of them, everything you have"
the guy comes back with his arms full of 8 bottles which he presents on the table.
"a 2006 beaujolais nouveau? you must be kidding!"
"a 2006 saint emillion? stored in the fridge or on the window sill? inbuvable!! (undrinkable)"
and so on...
we tasted them all, they were all horrid, so we went back to drinking beer...

Friday, March 10, 2017

mamiwata update

so now the real story. it turns out i met someone who actually knows the french tourist who got taken by the mamiwata...according to him, the tourist got drunk, wandered away from camp at night and came back 2 days later.  "il était totalement défait" (he was completely undone). either before or after he went missing (or both).

Thursday, March 9, 2017

the mamiwata part II

the true story of the mamiwata.
three mondeles arrived at base camp, a lady, her ex-husband and another guy. the lady and husband accompanied by the guide go for a hike (the same one we did the next day, a gruelling trek up a mountain), leaving the third dude at the cap. after a while the ex-husband says, i can't go anymore, i will stay here - you two go ahead and come back and get me on the way back. so they do the hike and when they come back, the guy is GONE.
they come back to camp, and get all the guides and rangers (there are only 8 total for an area the size f Belgium) and start searching everywhere, calling his name, but no luck. 
so they call the police, the embassy, the military..."losing a mondele is a big deal," he says
so they search for a few more days and still no luck. they interrogate the lady and the dude separately and they quickly conclude that she must have devised a plot to kill her ex-husband, that's it, hein?
but it's not true she says, keep looking!
several more days go by and they stil can't find him. so the villagers do what they typically do when someone goes missing, they find a fetishiste to do a ritual.
so they find the best fetishiste in Congo, because this is a mondele we are talking about, and the french police bring him to the site. the feitshiste sets up all his stuff and candles and mixes and whatever and says "ah! the mamiwata! [the forest sirens] we need to sacrifice someone in exchange, and since this is a mondele, a goat or chicken won't do, we need to give the mamiwata a real human in order to free Jean-Marc!"
and so apparently the gendarmes were all, yeah no we aren't killing someone to find this idiot who got lost and so the fetishiste says, "ok fine, i will sacrifice one of my parents because they are really old anyway".  and so he does, somehow, this part wasn't clear, and the fetischiste says go to the river, you will find him, and now the other guy tells the story of how even though they are 50km from where he got lost, and go down to the river, where the ranger says suddenly this mondele rises from the water, gasping for air. all banged and scratched up and looking like a mess and "il bagayait" shaking and talking nonsense. according to our ranger, the first word he was able to utter was "water!" to which the guide says, but you just came from the water! and the french guy says "but if i drink this water, it will make me sick!" and somehow this is proof that he was taken by the mamiwata..[obviously].   
so he is taken back to brazzaville and after several interrogations by police will not say how he got lost or where he was, he remembers nothing....the scientist in me says he probably fell off a ledge and was carried away by the current in the river (yes, it's pretty strong and deep), but then again, how would the ranger have been in the right place to find him? how did he survive for so many days? so maybe it was the mamiwata afterall...

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

the mamiwata part I

so alicia wanted to celebrate her 37th birthday by spending the weekend outside of Brazzaville, in the Lesio-Louna reserve, a few hours drive away. but planning something in Congo isn't so easy, we had to repeatedly go to the park office at lunch time to sort out the logistics, rather difficult for an organization which has literally no comprehension of tourism. so each day it became this african monty python skit with conversations like
"we want to camp on saturday, and do a boat trip on sunday"
you want to do a boat trip on saturday and sunday? that's a lot of boat trips
"no, only sunday."
the boat operator does not work on saturday
"i know, that is why we want to do a boat trip on sunday"
but if you do the boat trip on saturday, you will be too tired for the boat trip on sunday

Alicia actually asked the guy at one point "have you been drinking today, sir?"
so we would give up and come back the next day and hope someone else would entertain our queries. 
the most difficult obstacle to our quest, was the ever evolving legend that last month an american tourist had recently died in the reserve, therefore overnight stays were not allowed, hikes forbidden, though the story kept changing and we never knew what was happening. 
we found out that it was a french tourist. and that he did not die, he just got lost. or that he was up to no good and actually purposefully disappeared.
and then once, our man left the room momentarily, and his assistant sitting across the room whispered to us "the french tourist was taken by the mamiwata (the sirens of the forest)" cue scary music! 
that day we are driving back from work when we get stopped by the police for the second time in two days because of the tinted windows. everyone has tinted windows! but as of today they are illegal. and they always say "go home and remove the tint, it's easy, it just peels rightoff!"
so alicia calls her mechanic to come, and he meets us at her apartment, he will take care of everything to get the car in order for our trip. and well, we go upstairs to drink wine on the terrace. an hour later we come down and the mechanic is sitting on the curb, pointing to his wrist like, hello, i'm done here, let's go!
he tells us how he fixed the battery and the car is running great
but i say, wait, papa, the tinted windows! you haven't touched them
oh yeah that...
to which i repeat my new favorite congo phrase "you had one job!"
and guess what, only the plastic outer part peels right off, the black tint stays, and you need to scrape it off with a razor blade and then dissolve it with paint thinner.  awesome. that's how we spent the next two hours. and alicia is a total neat freak ocd so it literally felt like we were cleaning up a murder scene with toothbrushes and white rags (which are actually her old panties, which go over real well with the guys).  
saturday morning we packed our things, and we soon notice that somehow the electrics of the car are all backwards - the windows go down when you click them to go up, and all the inside lights go ON when you close the door. you had one job! 
we sigh if off and go pick up two colleagues to complete our group and drive search of fuel. gas shortage! the rebels have apparently blown up the train bridge fuel supply route to pointe noire, long lines and fights at all the petrol stations, what to do?
we call the reliable mechanic who instructs us to drive down some sketchy shanty town route where we buy diesel out of yellow vegetable oil jerry cans. we get an extra just in case, which john attaches to the back bumper with a bungee cord and his belt. 
and finally, many hours late we are off, following the hand drawn map on the inside of a cereal box. like i said, they have no clue how to deal with tourists. bumpy bumpy potholed roads which you actually pay tolls for, get extorted by the police, stop and buy avocados and charcoal, avoid chickens and dogs, and all the way whenever we would say we are going to lesio-louna, this mysterious legend of the dead/lost/undead french tourist and his mamiwata would grow in intrigue. we magically find the unmarked overgrown dirt path which after many wrong turns leads to the reserve, and arrive at the little entrance booth and the guy is all excited "we've been waiting for you for hours! we thought you got lost" to which we explain, you might want to maybe, i don't know, put signs somewhere so we don't drive all over? 
he doesn't care, he tells us where we will spend the night, 12 km away, but that the beautiful lac bleu, is only 6km away, so we should really go there first and swim. he gives us a heap of manioc to feed the rangers at the base camp, another warning about the mamiwata sirens! and we head towards the lake. 

lac bleu from above
Lac bleu is a stunning, clear, deep lake which is a rarity in a land of dark brown or black rivers. the water is crystal, calm, serene, surrounded by tropical trees sheltering us from the increasing winds, the falling ashes from the neary bush fires.  we are entirely alone, accompanied by a few welcome beers and the echoes of our voices from the hills. we attempt to film this magical location with a drone but my colleague had studidly forgotten an essential part! gah!
jump right in
as the day turns to dusk we sadly change out of our bathing suits and resume the vehicle to trek towards the base camp. we stop several times along the way to spot birds, take photos, and take in this amazing landscape. further down we pass a vehicle, racing towards us, flashing its lights and blaring its horn. the guy from the entrance booth runs to us, out of breath 
"we have been looking all over for you!"
apparently not everywhere, we were at the lake
"we were expecting you at the base camp and when you didn't show up we thought you were taken by the mamiwata"
but you told us to go to the lake!
they drive away, a bit frustrated and we laugh it off. night is falling quickly and the road splits in two very different directions, no idea which to take. 
"wouldn't it be funny if now they stopped looking for us and we actually did get lost" i say? my companions are unimpressed.    
we drive and drive and drive and take turns here and there and we cannot find this base camp.
it's now dark, and harry, the australian bird fanatic shows off his mega-bright flashlight. 1100 lumens, which i guess is brighter than the projector at the cinema. he starts pointing the light into the woods, part of a sport he calls "owling" and counts all the different glowing eyeballs. which i just find super creepy.
finally we stop in an open savanna and get out to determine what to do. we are near some abandoned house and consider if we should just sleep in the car or what. shortly, two guys come running over "we found you!" it's two park rangers. who explain that they were waiting for us, and then saw this really bright light appear in the distance, and that's how they tracked us down. thank goodness for those 1100 lumens! 
they bring us back to basecamp, which is a delightful collection of bungalows with these screened in thatched roofed common rooms. we start up the grill, open the wine and it's saturday night. 
at one point john says "i know those ranger guys smoke weed, we should ask for some." so he goes off and comes back and explains how he used hand motions and subtle hints to asked the guys for smoked stuff, and they were were all sure no problem we bring you some maboke tomorrow. 
we ruin his fun by explaining that maboke is actually smoked fish, haha. but he says whatever, they are drinking this rocket fuel and you need to try it. so we go over and join their little party and drink this home made corn alcohol from a pastis bottle which could certainly light up something. so we drink and talk, and then i ask one of them, hey what's the deal with the french tourist, are we going to get the real scoop?
the two guys look at each other and tell me "we were there, madame" and so just like in a movie with flashbacks, we each take a bottle cap full of jet fuel and they begin their enrapturing story telling. it was like all they needed was a flashlight under their chin to make it complete. though their story telling style was also interactive, the guy would say a phrase like, there was a tourist named jean-marc" and he would wait for me to ask a question or say "and then what happened?" and so we finally heard the story of: the french tourist and the mamiwata. (TBC)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

fine art kinshasa

so on sunday it was so hot we went to the pool. felt pretty classy to be sipping a gin and tonic and then get a call from an artist i had met on the first night, asking if i wanted to come by his "atelier." 
well sure! he seemed to push a bit on the time, like really, you need to be here by 5, but jeanne and i were enjoying the sun and breezy palms, it was hard to motivate. so finally we get to bandal and it's pitch black. cloudy pitch black but also the entire neighborhood cloaked in darkness from an afternoon power outage. we are calling the artist navigating for directions and trying to avoid the mud paths and ghostlike silhouettes who are all in the same situation. we enter a little courtyard with women cooking over coal fires, meowing and fighting cats, and at the end, our host tells us he will quickly go out to get batteries for the flashlights, but in the meantime, sit here and -woof! on come the lights! what luck.

the atelier
we are at dollet malulu's tiny workshop/kitchen/bedroom/livingroom. in less than 10m2 of space, there are 4 or so giant canvases on the wall. i am immediately drawn to one, but it's not just this tiny space that makes it look big - it's actually big. more than 3m on a side, there's no way i can carry that home, even rolled up.
i bought this

 i look over a few other pieces and i'm like, ok, so...that's it? but it's not. he starts to pull out bits and pieces of his art, from behind a wall, under a chair, he starts rolling out these pieces. each one has a long story, which draws you into each work, they always start with a congolese celebrity, sapeur or musician and weave into this and that. we must have looked at 100 paintings. sipping on a giant nkoyi, we are almost all the way through when i decide on one of the first ones. it's of julie dzikey, one of congo's first female performance artists, who, coincidentally now lives in Germany. everyone adds their crazy julie dzikey story and i'm even more enraptured. 
i know what i have in my wallet, and it's hard to negotiate with someone who's life is this room, his visa to go to his own openings in Spain were denied, so all he can show me are fuzzy cell phone photos from someone else. i want to give him a good price, but i also don't want to be insulting..-we finally agree and i'm high fiving jeanne on my first purchase of fine art! and what a scene...little kids with bulging eyes are watching me timidly from behind some drying bedsheets, some skinny chickens and the smell of pee wafting from another courtyard. well, whatever, i'm the proud owner of a dollet malulu!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

the ride

so one of the things with having a drone is you aren't really allowed to fly it anywhere.
in DRC i know a guy who is the head of his local territory, and runs a little community forestry project. so i asked him if i could come and do some flights, make some videos for them, try some new techniques and teach his guys how it works and everything. they were thrilled!
i asked if any of the kids from my training wanted to go - yes yes yes! i couldn't say no and had to upgrade to one our land cruisers to have room for 7. learning from the training experience i got Serge to rent a generator so we could be completely "autonome." don't have to depend on anyone. i also suggested that even though they said they had food and drink, we should bring some.
so on the way out of kinshasa, after the airport we started stopping at these busy hectic local markets. i would pick out something from my list - eggs! bananas! and it would arrive through the door or window or a few steps away, though preferably one of the congolese guy's door because a few times went like this:
eddy goes and buys avocados from a lady for 500 francs each and comes back and says, "avocados!"
and i say, oh, i love avocados, let's get some more.
the exact same lady comes to my window and offers me her avocados for 2000 francs each, which i buy and i'm like, hey guys, only 2000 francs!
so then they said, just stay in the car. 
eddy came back with matching straw hats for everyone. 
later, we are driving along and i spy mangosteens. i love mangosteens! i want like, 100 kilos of mangosteens!
next stop carine comes back and says, we couldn't find 100 kg but we got 20!
as always, crowds of guys hang around the truck talking lingala and all i hear is mondele. if i called out "congolais" every time i saw a congolese i say!
one guy starts chattering on and i ask TGV to translate. stop me if you've heard this one before...
"well, this fine young gentleman in the Neymar jersey is politely requesting your hand in marriage, he has a large farm and would be proud to be your husband."
thank you TGV, please tell him i kindly receive his request, but cannot accept. i am truly sorry.
the guy continues chattering, smiling everyone in and out of the car is snickering, Serge says, "oh, do you want me to smack him? i will!"
what is he saying? TGV continue translating
", he wants the wedding to be now now now, his brother is a pastor, you will be married at lunch, and the honeymoon will begin today. you will go to his farm and..."
what, go on! at this point i am eating a banana
and TGV does not want to continue
eddy picks up where he left off
"well, since you like bananas so much you can go to his farm and eat his bananas, all day, all night and soon you will have beautiful mixed metisse babies and he will be so proud, one baby a year, every year until you are so old you can't anymore! and every day, bananas!"
ok you can stop, thank you!
the car got fuller and fuller until i realized we should stop stopping and start going. one more stop - meat!
and so we hit the butcher, who, ironically is wearing a shirt that says "would you marry ME??"
to which point we enter the how many children should people have debate, which i know is a favorite. 
Serge the driver has 7 children and won't stop until he has to.
the other serge has 2 and will have no more - it takes a lot of "moyens" resources for many children, and i can spend more time with my 2 girls
Serge the driver responds: when le Dieu blesses you with children, he also blesses you with the resources to care for them (you know, the whole, children are wealth perspective)
to which the other serge says "what about Obama then! he has the resources but he only has two girls!"
pfff Obama, where is Obama now? 
Obama's face is on this plastic bag! (and it is, look!)
and then the conversation evolves into Lingala and i zone out. at one point i read a lingala phrase off a beer billboard:
leke leke
mwete mwete
pete pete
they all laugh hysterically, i guess it was good timing to say something like triple filtered, extra smooth, easy going or something like that.  

Saturday, February 25, 2017

bienfait espoir, ça.

so one of the reasons i came to kinshasa was to do a web mapping training, where you make interactive maps for websites. the office kept asking for one and i kept saying no, the internet isn't good enough, it's going to be really frustrating, and they answered, DRC has fiber optic cable now! so i said ok. 
the first day of the training i was awoken by a mad thunderstorm that turned all the streets to mudslides and shut down power everywhere. i was the first to arrive at the darkened office, an hour late because there was no way i was walking and because everyone and their mom was stuck in awful mud traffic, most inconveniently, my driver. well, turns out there is fiber optic cable but no one thought to fix the generator. did i mention my training had 20 participants registered, many of which took expensive life-risking flights from Goma or Bukavu, so no pressure or anything. what to do? i pictured myself doing a tap dance or shadow puppet show to 40 glazed eyeballs. i went to my phone credit recharger guy and bought 50$ of 3G data, while the rain banged on the zinc roof so you could barely hear. did you say 50? five zero? DOLLARS? c'est beaucoup!
my phone dude. also sells fresh roasted peanuts.
and then i hotspotted my computer for an extremely long day of Loading...Please Wait...ERR_INTERNET_DISCONNECTED. the training was basically, this is what you CAN do, someday, maybe monday. one attendee's name was Bienfait (welldone). repeating bienfait, Bienfait! when he spilled his tea or cleaned it up, never got old. The power came back but the internet didn't. The IT guy was also in the training, and his name is Espoir (hope). Y-a-t'il Espoir pour internet??
second day, same thing. but the air conditioner dripped some weird freon juice all over my computer bag. so, anyway, it was friday, time to go out. One of my students Esaie (try) invited me out for beers and goat in his neighborhood. ah, just like the good old goat days of 10 years ago! the neighborhood, Matongé (same as the congolese part of Brussels) is a bustling, lively mess of cafe patios, people selling stuff on their heads, goat and chicken slaughtering, and smoggy traffic including motorbikes. yup, they have motorbikes now. they were banned until a year ago, and now they are everywhere, being used as taxis, and quick purse snatchings (i though the colombians had cornered that market but i was wrong), which means everyone walks with their belongings clutched to their chests. 
a whole bunch of other people from the training joined us, along with the guy who goes by his initials which are TGV, guy-guy from way back when and some of their wives. it was a perfect cool evening, eating salted gristly meat with toothpicks and just sucking down the beers. 
when it came time to pay, roseline, esaie's accountant wife grabbed the bill "let me see it." lucky for her, whenever they cleared our table they put all the cadavers in a big plastic graveyard, so she went through and counted all the different kinds, corrected all the math and then called our nervous waiter over. the bill was then reduced by a good 25%. and me, i never even check the change i am given...
next stop, well, kinshasa, friday night, gotta be a club! they all asked me what i wanted. i said i didn't want to be molested by grody african guys, but i also didn't want to be surrounded by white people, so, something in between, please. 
so we ended up in this upscale, extremely extensive club in Bandal that went a bit overboard on the lasers. the dancefloor was an exact saturday night fever replica, glowing pulsating large white tiles (though not very good quality, sagging slightly with seams you trip over), but the best part? everyone at arm's length from eachother doing this very subtle butt shaking dance. like if you had change in your back pocket and wanted to jingle it to a really slow beat - just like that. of course, impossible for me and my genetics, but nonetheless an enjoyable group activity with no fear of being groped! but at that point i was pretty drunk/generous and ordering rounds of 10$ beers and paying on my credit card because omg you can pay with a credit card and save cash since the only bank that accepts my debit card went out of business.
we were in a VIP section which came with free bowls of popcorn. i was trying to toss kernels to land in Bienfait's ear when i dropped one piece on the floor. immediately, and not at all imperceptably a little guy showed up with a broom to sweep it up! he also collected the one piece that fell on the table outside the bowl. but what made it more ridiculous was that he was wearing a yellow reflective brussels airline vest so that in fact, the entire world knows that white girl is a big slob and as a result we are all blind now because lasers and reflective tape do not a good combination make. i took it to a point where i was holding my hand out and dropping popcorn to see if the guy could catch it before it hit the ground. then everyone decided it was time to take me home. 
i might have still been drunk when my seamstress came ringing - she's usually 5 hours late but now comes on time ever since i gave her a cell phone, which now holds thousands of modern, creative african wear photos that i had to flip through with my nose running, back sweating, headache, she's measuring me and telling me how much wider my hips are, and finally i just pointed to one and said "ça."

Thursday, February 23, 2017

jean claude beer man

i was walking back from the office on my first day, trying to retrace my recalled steps from the morning, through a significantly different urban landscape drenched by rain. i recognized an intersection and took a road leading to mine, when a guy opens a gate at the corner and says, "come on in!" inside is some half-finished house with piles of rubble, broken glass, a tangle of electric cables and who knows what else. i'm a little more street smart than to willingly walk in to my own eventual kidnapping/mugging/beheading so i politely decline. and then he called my name saying, "you live here!"
he knows my name?
then i saw it was jean-claude, the gardener i had met for 20 seconds that morning, when he had no shirt and no hat, which was why i did not immediately recognize him all dressed and dapper now. i peek inside the gate and it is still clearly this bizarre construction site. he closes the gate behind me and goes out into the street and i have a look around. it's a nice old house though in major disrepair, broken windows, no doors, yet someone seems to be living on the second floor balcony. behind the house i see a hole in the wall, an odd shape like in the cartoon when the road runner smashes through a door and his silhouette is left? it was like that. i climb over a mound of garbage and slide my way through when suddenly, hey, i'm in the garden of our house and there are jocelyn and jeanne, sitting with their empty beer glasses.
"where on earth are you coming from?"
i have no idea! jean-claude let me in.
"ah, that's his house now." so that's who's living on the balcony, he has a view of the whole street, and even the congo river in the distance and watches over all. he must have seen me coming down the street to greet me. yay for jean-claude.
when jeanne noticed one day that he never ever took time off, or never even seemed to leave she told him, you can go home you know, to see your family? take some paid/deserved vacation! he waved it off, "that is not a topic for you to worry about." so she figured the obvious, he lives far away in the cité, where everyone knows he has a job and probably always asks him for money. pretty sure his wife boisterously complains when he gets stoned on the couch all day, which seems to be his daily passtime, so...why not just live in the abandoned house? he's in a nice neighborhood, a fairly intact house, a bed with a view and everything he needs and if he wants to smoke weed all day in the hammock well then, no one bothers him about it, "il est pénard."
he also goes and gets beer for you! which arises from a mixture of concern for safety/laziness/privilege. why not.
you give him some cash with room for a tip, some empties and he will bring them back full. of course, it doesn't always work that smoothly. that night i sat with jeanne and jocelyn, pooled some money together and sent him out. for some reason the guard felt like he needed to provide 10 minute updates, as if he were a messenger for a live soccer match, interrupting us, out of breath "jean claude est en déplacement!" "he is now at the store!" "he is on his way back!" they were clearly up to something, there are little kiosks all over the street, it shouldn't take more than 3 minutes for the transaction but jean claude is clever. in this part of Gombé, the beers are expensive, maybe even 20% more than elsewhere, and so he has probably figured out where the absolute cheapest bottle in Kinshasa is, maybe he pays for a bus to the brewery, buys a whole bunch of beers with his tip and then brings them back to our street to sell them to double his earnings. who knows. he comes back 40 minutes later with 2 dusty lukewarm beers and in that time i have eaten all the salted peanuts and i'm just thirsty so it doesn't really matter.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

it's Rafa

hey elvis, who is in charge of the internet here at the office?
"c'est Rafa" (it's Rafa)
ok, where is Rafa?
"C'est Rafa" (it's Rafa)
yes i know
"no, his name is Cérafa"
huh? oh!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Art is alive and well in DRC

the night before my trip to Kinshasa we went to the Berlinale to see Felicité, a new congolese movie which won the silver bear. 
i have seen a lot of Congo movies, and they are mostly blurry jobs played at horrid loud volume on a tiny set behind the cashier at the supermarket. Every scene looks the same, either close up faces full of make-up or a 2D scene from the waist up...but Felicité was different, real cinematography and actors whom you can't really determine if they are actors or just real people. which says a lot for a country that doesn't even have any movie theaters. i am not counting the Alliance Francaise which shows french comedies in their courtyard which do little more than disgust the locals with regards to exported european culture.

i arrived at N'Jili realizing two years must have gone by since my last arrival. the buses which bring you to the terminal are intact with two sets of wheels, and there's a whole new terminal and customs area with orderly lines, no more fighting for your luggage and toilets with seats! you can still win the staff over with a smile though, as I did to the guy who wanted to scan my bag containing a drone - ey mbote papa! high five! no scan. 

i was out in the waiting area so quick my driver wasn't even there yet. i was immediately surrounded by yellow vested young dudes asking me questions about europe (i tell them they opened a new airport before Berlin did) and got the scoop on what i missed, the president is an asshole and the opposition guy died. 

anyway, soon omba arrived looking younger than ever. he wasn't even 5 minutes in the parking lot and was charged 6$ at the exit gate- no negotiating! (apparently, you can still park at the old airport where the military guard prices are more flexible).

anyway, i arrived at my airbnb - yes, kinshasa has airbnb now! - to find a beautifully lit garden full of models in tight dresses and big burly dudes quietly clinking glasses. what is going on here?
they are filming a movie!
my grody airport attire would really ruin the scene so i waited outside with my host and a few others until the coast was clear. i was offered enough whisky and beer to speed up the time, and when they packed up the camera equipment (and even the little clapboard "action!" thing) i was told the people who worked on Felicité were still in Berlin. And then, milling around at this little after party, i met the young producer 
"i hope it's ok we filmed a scene in your room?"
not a sex scene i hope...
artists, musicians (you play cello? I will find one! and i said, even if it has bicycle cable for strings kinshasa symphony style i can play it!) and young singers who broke out into impromptu beautiful songs, and then argued with me about reincarnation, and made sweeping accusations like "you women are always making tomato salad." this was after my host jocelyn (a guy with a girl's name?) asked if i needed any vegetables. sure! and then came two tall divas floating through the crowd carrying so-heavy-i-couldn't-even-lift-them plastic bins on their heads with cabbage (salad is now possible!), avocados (ready to eat on thursday), tomatoes, onions, zucchinis, cukes, all of which i picked out over the irregular beats of local music and when i tried to pay Jocelyn stepped in to handle the price mitigation. somehow it took me 10 years to find this little oasis of culture, only 3 minutes walking distance from my office? 
well the art scene is alive and well. i'm hoping i'll get to play some music and i commissioned a new art piece for my bedroom wall...
all of this 3 minutes from the office!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

the thing with south africa

the thing with a lot of south africa is that you might not notice it right away, but soon you do - all the white people are well off and live in nice houses with high fences lined with barbed wire and go to vineyards and restaurants, while most of the black people you see are wandering aimlessly along highways, driving übers, or live here:

lots of zinc roof township
there seems to be electricity and toilets, but that do not a good neighborhood make...

a colleague from Namibia remarked it first - where are all the black people? Any time we went to a restaurant or shop. they're hanging around in parking lots asking for small change to watch your car. there were some people congregating on a corner. you don't see anyone doing touristy things or leiser. We were at lunch reviewing a list of 30 applicants for a job posting. Among the pool, only one Zimbabwean, the rest: young white kids with fluent Afikaans and German sounding names.

And then, during my stay in Namibia at some old run down Mariott, i go to breakfast and at the table next to me is some fat south african tour guide squinting at his ipad. he goes to serve himself some coffee and then yells loudly and condescendingly at one of the employees about how the milk container isn't labeled. The hot water, coffee, they are labeled but the third container isn't. "don't you think it would be a smart thing to put a label on here to let people know this is hot milk and not something else?" what do you think it is, monkey blood? -was my retort but unlike him i did not yell it. the woman rolled her eyes and shuffles away, at which point he demands that she come back, right now, immediately, label the milk container. with no emotion she takes it away, she waits until the man sits down, and then she brings it back and places it next to the coffee - just the same without a label. attagirl.  

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cow herding for wives

So we are working on this conservation agricultural project in zambia, and we see a lot of cattle ranchers, or cow herders or whatever. They have lots and lots of cows, huge herds they can barely control and get hit by cars (it's awful, trust me), and the guy who is walking behind them with a stick will always have the most ratty clothes, no shoes, just real dirt poor style. And my colleague Moses #3 (i can't keep track of the moses here) says they often ask for money or donations or whatever. To which he'll say, wait, you have 50 cows! Why are you asking for handouts? Each animal is worth, what, 200$ at least? Why is he asking for donations and not just buying some clothes or fixing his house? It's another paradox. So, having lots of cows is a bit like having lots of money in the bank, only, other people can see your account statement. Which means the ladies are all, hey, i want some of this, or, some guy might want to marry his daughters or something. But well, instead of selling a cow here and there for necessities, it turns out they more often sell them to get more wives. The rest of the time they'll just keep them so they reproduce or die. So cows are sex bartering currency? Which makes me imagine some sort of feminist fantasy where cows=money=women=POWER? Yeah ok not really, just a fleeting thought....   

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Press 1 for English....

This is for my uncle because all of his Gabon stories predate the telephone :)
So we are setting up these cellphones for a project in Zambia and i had to call the mobile service company customer service.
"Welcome to MTN! Press 1 for English.."
And i was curious as to what the other options were so i listened on
"Press 2 for Bemba
"Press 3 for Nyanja
"Press 4 for Tonga
I stopped at 9. 

Now that's modern africa for you. Mind you, if we were in Congo you'd need at least 400 options...

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Myanmar: deep thoughts

Ok so i didn't write much during my trip to Myanmar, as it turns out i was quite busy at the office and often working late, and by the time i would walk home trying not to get eaten alive by mosquitos, hiding out in a noodle shop until they passed, getting home, taking the second of three daily showers, i usually couldn't muster much beyond watching HBO when we had power and cable, or reading some books by candlelight (i finished 5!).
But here are some thoughts: go now before it's too late! Myanmar/Burma is still wild, dirty, gritty, but at the point where in a lot of places white people are a complete novelty, though the asian obsession of white skin and whitening skin products is creeping in. I prefer the thanaka - wood paste stuff they put on their cheeks. But anyway, it's this totally innocent charm, where they think you are a hollywood star and want their picture with you, share tea or food and are eager to know where are you from, why on earth are you here and have you heard about aung san syu ki! At the same time it's getting a bit overrun by the hairy hoards of backpacker dreadlock tourists who expect it to be something like thailand. They wear pants with elephants on them, complain that everything closes at 10pm and then you find them drinking beer on top of a 2000 year old pagoda, which they somehow rationalize because the pagoda is super duper old, dude! Even though it has a well cared for buddha in it, and it's probably the most sacred site on earth for Burmese, and it's written that it's forbidden on little posters all over their hippie hostel and if they ever get caught i hope they'll consider that from a nice filthy burmese jail with a hefty fine on top. On the other side you also have this expensive upscale resort tourism which might be full of chinese? And just doesn't really jive with the whole place.
But there's hope! If there is one thing i noticed, it's the overwhelming optimism. and ok, at first i thought, yeah, we had our obama optimism too, it kinda faded. but what people expect of ASSK (aung san...can't spell it out) is more on par with the new canadian prime minister, their world is going to change...and what's crazier are the higher ups from my NGO are brimming with enthusiasm for how things will change for their environment and that really hit me. I work in a business where pretty much every day is a let down you need a full on miracle to give someone a smile - but here they were saying the positiveness of the new government and already the existing projects  that go beyond anywhere else- a power sector vision, new collaborations with local governments and communities, and an eagerness to embrace change and a positive direction that will make myanmar like it's neighbors in a way (economic development, openness, standard of living) but also not like them (decreasing deforestation, enabling sustainable forestry and other commodities, supporting land tenure) so as not to end up like drought suffering Thailand, replacing forests by plantations Vietnam, closed communist Laos, or runaway deforestation like Cambodia or the overarching chinese influence *cough illegal ivory and wildlife trade. It will take a bit of time to replace the brain drain and lack of infrastructure and capacity but they are moving and they are moving fast. So keep it on your watch list and don't ignore what is happening, or come see it for yourself. 

Oh, and the men wear skirts! Now beat yourself up for not visiting me!

Monday, March 14, 2016

asia speak

one of the unfortunate things some people pick up here is asia speak. i'm not too proud of it, but i can't stop it and hey i'm not he only one.
the asia speak is when you kind of asianify your phrases to make them understood. like i said, i'm not the only one who does this! everyone does and you kind of need it to get by!
so an example is when you are ordering shan noodles and you'll say
"i'd like one order of shan noodles, and can you please put the spicy sauce on the side?"
and the waitress will stare and look down at her hands, or in many cases get scared and run away to find someone else who might speak english, but that person will probably end up doing the same thing so if you want to make your order understood it's best to just say
"me (and point to yourself) shan noodle no spicy"
and well, it works.
for the taxi it's kind of the same thing.
i'll say "central train station"
and if the guy just repeats "central train station" in zombie monotone with no comprehension, it's not a good idea to get in at this point because he will just drive aimlessly until you're like, hey where are we? like i said, zombie style.
so you say "centraah tray stashio"
and if you're lucky he'll say yes yes yes! tray stashio! and then you go.
sometimes i'll say "shine condo?" and then he might even know that, even better!
and well, if none of these things work, then it's taxi charades: i pretend to put on a train drivers hat, pull the throttle and sound effects: chooo choooo! chugachugachugachugachugachuca choooo chooooo! and that, works every time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

the circle line

So i had a friend from berlin visiting Yangon and we were on the usual downtown tour of tasty shan noodles, followed by weird stinky chinatown markets, ending with fancy toilets and drinks at the Strand Hotel (good to have contrasts) when it was 3:30 and we were considering what to do with the remaining daylight hours. The options were poolbar, the bogyoke market (so that i can feed my fabric obsesssion and also get a shirt tailored - i bought one of these cool traditional chinese style shirts with round buttons assymmetrically down one side, but one of the buttons falls right on my nipple. Gotta fix that), when we instead started talking about the circle line - the vintage old train that puttputts around the city, it's supposed to be a cool way of sightseeing. So the problem with my friends who live here is that we're all just incredibly lazy. Whenever i bring something up to visit it's like, ohhh we have to go all the way there, why not just sit by the pool instead? So my berlin visitor was clearly a bit more ambitious with his 72 hours in Yangon.   
So we went for it - walked to the central train station and bought some water and beers and tickets for 20 cents. My friend was all nervous like, hurry up stop taking photos we're going to miss the train! And i was like, we're not catching the ICE, you know this is burma right? The train moves about as fast as you can walk, so you can always catch it. As he double and triple checked with everyone on the platform "is this is the right train? Is this it?" Clearly worried we could end up on a 29 hour trek to Mandalay.

all aboard the japanese train!
Unfortunately, this wasn't one of the wagons with all the open doors and big windows, but a recycled Japanese suburban train which despite being from the 60s was actually quite modern, and my brother will be pleased to note - still decades ahead of Amtrak or WMATA. I can only imagine what this was like back in the day and quite advanced. I liked the old school fans mounted on the ceilings which gave a nice fresh breeze and all the lights and knobs with japanese text. We found some green velour seats and waited for the scenery to pass by. Except for the small family of french people we were the only tourists. And you can imagine what the locals were thinking. It's like, here you are riding the same bus you ride everyday and a slew of chinese tourists get on and touch everything and take pictures of everybody. Though, if a chinese tourist is reading this and you want to get an amazing cultural experience in the USA - take any bus that rides from Benning road, washington DC down Florida avenue to Adams morgan. That will knock your socks off. If you don't get shot at, you will see a rich tapestry of modern american society at every wonderful stop. Anyway, I had to kneel up on my seat to reach the window to watch the world go by - people hanging out and sitting along the side of the tracks, flying kites along the rails, little solar panels set up on plastic chairs, houses with large communal kitchens, a string of auto shop shacks and all along the way, people pointing at my face - look! And waving. Even the conductors from passing trains. Really amazing. I hear you can go all the way out to rural areas where people live in huts, but as this thing really doesn't go that fast and it started filling up with folks carrying all these giant packages of rice and food and selling apples we decided to get out at one point. I don't even know where it was but it was a sort of deserted station, and on the other side all these fun kids pointing as us and showing off, i saw a baby with totally red hair and everyone just smiling.

We exited the station and it was this delightful pedestrian street market. Now i already know from chinatown that even when you think it's pedestrian it's not - the cars will go through but not here. There were lots of rickshaws though, and they have rigged these extremely loud bike bells that are in fact quite annoying but otherwise the market was totally pleasant. Not a single tourist in sight and everyone totally friendly and wanting to get their picture taken. I bought 10 huge eggplants for 25 cents. And he threw in an extra ear of corn and another 2 eggplant. These ain't no downtown prices. 

Everyone was just so wonderfully pleasant and fun and there was even a little breeze to slow the sweating.  and down one side street i saw a guy with 




Written on his ratty t-shirt. I pointed to it and said great shirt, bro, and he showed me the rest that was tucked into his longgi which read

baby face covered in thanaka

always collecting money for the buddha

happy veggies
they are obsessed with bike bells drrrrrrring!
eat shit fuck that's alll i do bro
Right on, man. His wife proudly presented their kids for photos too. Further down we saw a Hindu temple, one of those really complicated and colorful things with a giant gate with peacocks framing either side. Then we noticed everyone was very indian looking. We sat at a little cafe to drink a coke and this guy had a straight up tandoori oven and cooking fresh naan. he would flatten out of the balls of dough and slap them against the inside and they stuck and cooked and then brought them to us for 10 cents and it was so good i took some to go for sunday brunch. sitting in the taxi home (which cost about 1000 times more than the train) i realized we didn't even go a quarter of the way around the circle line but it was definitely a wonderful little excursion.
I guess the touris all stick to the same 4 points of interest listed in the lonely planet but it's totally mind boggling how much cool stuff there is to see in yangon without even trying so hard! 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

omg it's chinatown in yangon

so the other day we went to the bogyoke market to feed my insatiable appetite for fabrics and baskets. carsten yawned and followed all bored but i told himhe should probably stay home and it's his fault he didn't. we found a post office. open on a sunday! staffed by a nice little lady with no teeth. i bought stamps with photos of the capital on it and sent postcards to my friend's kids kindergarten, who had just learned about geography and the parents are getting postcards sent from all over. so far they've gotten cards from exotic florida and spain, wait till the teacher has to figure where burma is!
then we bought our weekly staple of grapefruit/pomelo. huge grapefruits, ok, but what's even better? These ladies peel them completely and remove the seeds. it's just pure, juicy, plump grapefruit flesh with none of the mess and it's the best thing ever. my brother would go apeshit over this.
we crossed the pedestrian bridge over bogyoke street, past the dude who has little birds in a cage, whom you pay to free the birds. the birds look all stressed and tired and then he kicks the basket every once in a while to check they are alive. i've heard that when they get released they die almost instantly of exhaustion. doesn't really jive with the whole Buddhist thing in my opinion, though everyone is super nice to all the street cats and dogs. they get fed and have their heads rubbed all the time. even the gross mangy ones.

anyway, the other side was chinatown, and i was ending my three day quest for a bathing suit (i forgot mine in bangkok). until now i have seen lots of places that sell totally slutty underwear, and when i say swimsuit and make a swimming motion, they show to a pile of hideous burkinis. like with knee coverings and a turtleneck and frills everywhere. the first time i totally laughed, and felt bad when there was a lady in an actual total face burka next to me. i would have atually bought one to get a good laugh but no one has my size. they do not condone showing skin, apparently. so i'll be swimming in my new slutty underwear thankyouverymuch.
so chinatown. fascinating, depressing. all the cheap as can be electronics, (carsten bought a new smartphone for 50$), pastel colored plastic as far as the eye can see, mis-spelled bags and t-shirts, you name it. i saw a woman, with a mentally challenged child and three other babies in tow, and her shirt spelled "DIRTYFUCKINGKIDS". but it was all in sequins so i guess it's classy. there's a lamp street, a cable street, even a rug and hardware street. we bought a pair of home-made scissors that smell really bad. 

and then there's a food street.
now this was crazy, you have a block just chock full of open stores, and vendors either behind little booths or on the ground all with barely enough room to squeeze by and amidst the people, the carts, and then, in this mess - the fucking cars drive through. i noticed this one night on 19th street, it's a block full of restaurants and patios, and bbqs, where you fill a basket with mystery meats and they cook them for you - well the cars actually come through there. oh, and then honk aggressively while doing so. so every ten minutes you have to pick up your plates and drinks, and grab your plastic table and chairs while some taxi or whatever comes through, horn blaring. game off! wayne's world style. and then game on, you put your drink down and sit down and - damn! another car!
everyone says how two years ago, there were no cars. none. you waited an hour for a taxi. so in 700 days, not only has the number cars soared and choked the streets, but the drivershave alll learned to assholes. there are two points in my daily walk to work where i have to frogger it across four lanes. you can only really do one lane at a time, and often i get stuck in the middle between two lanes and they honk and don't even try to swerve and the rearview mirrors swipe my backpack. it's crazy. i have never, ever, once seen a car let someone pass, even when it's an old crumply hunched over lady who's holding my wrist as she gets ready to RUN. oh man, and do these people HONK. all day, all night, honk honk honk! i often daydream of the upcoming inauguration of aung san suu kyi, where i imagine her proposing to bring peace back to myanmar..but outlawing unncessary honnking.
anyway, back to chinatown. so this is a narrow street with a row of people selling their goods, sitting on the ground and everything in these little backets, some of which are placed precisely in the middle of the street..leaving two tire lanes? yup, so that the cars come and actually drive over everything and no one has to move their goods. i can't imagine what the exhaust, oil leaks do to the live fish, or the chickens with their yellow feet up in the air, but this is how it goes.

honk honk!

all your meat, freshly hacked

more meat and fish, kept warm by exhaust and the tropical sun...

in between these streets i noticed these dark alleys people were coming out of so we took one. inside was a totally trippy covered market, grimy, dirty, dusty rows of meat on one side, cheap fabrics, food coloring, you name it. i have never seen anything like it. there seemed to be barely any customers, but plenty of rathter friendly vendors who were just surprised to see white people who might potentially buy 2 gallons of glue. yes, here in yangon white people are still a novelty, especially in these hellhole parts. on my way home from work i get waived at by little girls all the time who scream haiiiiii! you actually wonder how long this innocence will last...    

Thursday, January 28, 2016

what we eat

so it's safe to say it's actually more expensive to cook at home than to eat out. mostly because you either get your vegetables at the supermarket, which is stupid expensive, or at the little market stands who have no qualms about ripping me off with these totally random prices. the other day i paid 10 cents for some red onions, and the same for a head of cabbage, and then i felt bad because i only had a 1000 kyat note, so added a carrot to round up the price, but somehow it cost about one thousand times more than all the rest. still, i made some noodles and rice once in a while, but the rest of the time, we just eat out.
our vegetarian roommate has shown us the little south indian neighborhood. a little 10 minute walk where you pass through rows and rows of street samosa vendors, and the delicious samosa salad, which is actually samosas cut into pieces with scissors and served in a soup. why is it a salad? then everyone sits on these miniature stools, which i can't wait to see 1m95 carsten on one but these places are a food poisoning gamble. once i buy some activated charcoal tablets we'll be trying that out.
so there's one place, that serves dosas or chapati on a metal prison-style tv platter, with the little compartments. a guy comes around with a slop bucket under his arm and a ladle and dumps as much potato and veggie curry onto your dish as he can. free refills. it splatters all over the place. orange is the new black style. it's best not to look into the kitchen. total cost: 1000 kyat. less than 1$. which is the same price as a watermelon juice. to compensate we'll often go to the fancy coffee place and get a 2500 kyat coffee.
most places have convenient menus of pictures, and no prices. but it doesn't matter because it's all cheap, and your meal costs the same as a beverage.
for lunch i place an order with the office receptionist, who translates whatever i want into myanmar and hands it to the cleaning lady who goes to some street stand nearby and brings everything back in these mini plastic bags with the little handles tied into a slip knot. rice, too. most of it is unbearably spicy, and also meat in a bag is somehow unappealing to me so i've mostly ordered the vegetables. which are delicious. watercress, corn, bok choy, and the cauliflower. sometimes i get a perfectly fried egg, all for under 1000. i was a bit troubled about all the plastic waste (every restaurant serves their take-out in styrofoam, which makes me cringe) so i bought one of these metal hot pot thingies which everyone carries around, especially the monks, like when they walk up to someone's door and start singing, they hand over their hot pot so it gets filled with yummy food.

i got a little one with two tiers and kinda small, which will keep me from stuffing my face like a slob. i showed it to the cleaning lady and via translator asked her to get my meals in it, and she smiled gracefully at my assimilation. it also helped that i was also wearing my new longgi, one of those long skirts even the men wear. but man try walking up the stairs in a longgi, and you step on the front of it on the upper step, and the only way to free yourself is to sit down and walk backwards and did i mention we have this grand stairway in our office like in a mansion? yeah they all saw me. anyway, i put my name on my hotpot and i eat out of it with all the other people who bring their lunch to the office. everyone likes to share and offer me stuff, like, have you tried this sour fish (awful)? how about some spicy beef balls (my face was on fire). but all with a content do-gooder feeling of reducing my garbage just that much. until one day, i saw the lady bringing the food back from the street stall, all in plastic, and then putting everything into my hotpot with her filthy hands. so much for trying.      

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

a typical day at the office...

so i'm in the office, where i sit on the second floor. instead of the air conditioner aimed right at my face i like to open the door to the sunny balcony, and see some of the happenings on the street below. the swaying Palm trees with birds, ladies with painted faces walking by scream-singing whatever they are selling from a big basket on their head. usually pineapple. a utility truck comes and a bunch of guys in uniforms come out and start inspecting the telephone/electric pole which has a huge mess of wires at the top. the guy climbs up in his flip fops and he's perched atop, sifting through each wire like he's untangling a braid. he's almost exactly at my eye level, chilling there, and i see the beads of sweat on his temples. i go back to my emails for a bit, and i look up and he's still there sorting the cables, connecting some, and then picks one and he pulls out a big pair of clippers from his back pocket. he's still sorting, sorting, re-sorting until finally he finds the one and clip!
and out goes the power, followed by a huge grumbling throughout the building as the air conditioners choke up. his colleague now in a mini tractor thing who was digging a hole yells up something, and then he sorts again, looking for the right wire this time. Which is apparently our fiber optic internet cable and so then our people come out, and the dude on the ground gets all angry and so they switch and well, a bunch of other stuff happens but our internet is out for 3 days. and so everyone hotspots their phones and you can see all these wireless networks pop up when you search and you can see who has an iphone. i say to shoon, who sits behind me, you don't have to brag that you have a 6S dude. then he tells me he has a better provider and can stream movies while i can barely send a 6kb email. previously we had a good laugh with shoon, whom you can address by saying "co shoon" which means brother shoon. though with the belgian guy we say "cochonne" and shoon asks what it means and i say well google it with your fancy 3g 6s and a second later i hear, hey, that's a lot of porn. i thought at least a pig would be top billing on the results but it wasn't. who knew.
i went to the bathroom and shoon warned me you can't use it when the power is out. so that's how it goes here, you quickly adjust to things. like eating rice at every meal. every meal! i buy coconut sticky rice from a nice street vendor lady in the mornings for 500 kyat. so after i used up all my data plan in a few hours and the power didn't come back, i went to the fancy shanngri-la hotel for a toilet, a 5$ watermelon juice and the fastest wi-fi i've seen in weeks. you have to know where to find the few things you need to stay sane. like the kushmi green detox tea and aveda curly hair products that were the best gifts ever from mother that keep my stomach and hair in lines but are quickly running out...the cold showers every morning, i actually like them now and was able to stay in for a whole three minutes today. everyone has been warning me, that in less than two weeks the heat will be so unbearable that cold showers three times a day will be blessing. so soon it will be hot, my hair will be a mess and i'll be drinking lipton. i guess we'll wait and see.