Wednesday, March 11, 2015

international women's day #2

so there's been a bit of a baby boom in yaoundé, a lot of the women i know are all with young kids or on maternity leave. as my housemate, rizbo, new father of a young cute half german baby says "congratulations should be in order for the cameroonian men! these fellas work hard!" fist pump. yeah, maybe. still, women get to celebrate with a vengeance on march 8th.

i actually spent most of my afternoon waiting for my colleague who had invited me over for lunch. he showed up around 4pm, as i should have known. he was sad that i wasn't wearing my special women's day dress! his wife had offered me one the week before, a truly touching gesture, only....well, it was more of a mumu, a giant dome like thing that fell to the floor and got caught under my shoes. so i sheepishly handed it off to my seamstress (you gotta have one in very city), wearing her own elegant, perfectly fitting slender outfit, whistled and said yeah, i can make 10 dresses out of that if you want. and a tote bag. so i was more westernly adorned as we headed off to the edge of town - literally, behind the breezy house stood vast forest covered hills and the view from the porch, sweeping, dusty yaoundé. 4 kids, no water. you have to get it at the well. 
i got bitten by mosquitos and sweated a storm before the main course was served, a nasty looking freshwater fish we had bought on the road the day before, stewed in peanut sauce, which made it delicious. after dinner (630pm) we hit the johnny walker black and boxed wine until we all decided to go back into town for the real festivities. we got stuck in a major traffic jam due to rain, but also seas of people, mostly women, flooding the streets, drunk, pretty, jovial. 
we decided to go to the bar across from my house, and also one of the other guests who was my neighbor. i arrived to high five the owner walter, "hey weren't you here a year ago?" the bar hadn't changed much, except for the addition of a billiard table, which was unfortunately, just about as big as the room as it was placed in. after inventing a new women's day drink consisting of guiness from a bottle, jagermeister, and schmirnoff double black (emphasis on the double black) i challenged my cohorts, button up shirt and tie wearing phDs to some pool. they have never even picked up a cue before. the antics of this game proved hilarious, as i was trying to explain the rules, but also you couldn't take any shot without jamming your stick against the wall, so you would perch it awkwardly vertically and had no chance of htting anything. ridiculous. i finally showed them that we could unscrew the cues into two parts, and then we played on this giant table with what were essentially toothpicks. speaking of toothpicks, i was later challenged by a visitor, a giant man with a golden michael jordan cap and zero facial expression, half open eyelids, with an immobile toothpick between his lips, which would remain unmoved as he suavely smoked his cigarette. he also smoked me in pool in less than 10 minutes, somehow suavely squeezing around the 10cm open perimter around the table -which was unfortunately also on the way to the bathroom, so anyone going to the loo would also have to squuueeeeze through and you would end trying to hold your drink above your head but then spilling it everywhere or touching someone you really didn't want to. the DJ came around with his wirless mic, signing over the nigerian gangsta rap with his own french lyrics, waving his fist at us "les femmes! ouais ouais!". later on, my colleague gaston who was oddly missing, we figured he was stuck in traffic, came in, completely soaked. what happened?
car broke down.
where is your wife??
waiting with the car.
gaston! i smack him on the head. it's women's day! you go wait with the car in the pouring rain and let her get a drink!
the thought had never even crossed his mind...
we continued to play doubles, my guys still not comprehending the rules, moving the balls with their hands when they wanted, playing out of turn, holding the cue backwards. they seemed to enjoy all my double entendres about touching balls and sticks until we segwayed to the sexy move rule, where each player had to jam their butt up against the wall like in a beyoncé video while they took a shot. but that proved too hot for this party. every time someone attempted, the power would go out. pitch black. we waited during a few hopeless tries to get the generator going, but it wasn't enough to fuel both the strobelights and the DJ booth, only one or the other, and that was my cue to leave. cue. hehe. get it?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

road trip cameroon

so before my trip i casually said to my colleague Gaston, over Skype how i've been looking at this forest block for years in a satellite image, but i've never actually seen it, you know? What do you say we go there and do some reconnaissance. sounds good he says, it only takes a day to get there...ah the last time an african told me something is a day away!
i suggested we leave at 6am, always better to be on the early side. at 9:30, i was still waiting. i call gaston "i wanted to print some maps before we go"
i printed a bunch, i brought them to you
"but they are too nice to bring to the field"
he ended up taking 2 hours to re-create the same maps i made -he could have just used my files, but no, he started from scratch, and what's worse, the black and white printer doesn't really convey all the sublte hues of greens and blues. he basically brought a grey map in the form of eastern Cameroon. nice one. 
we finally hit the road with emmanuel, the driver, whom i want to call manu, but he insists: emma. kinda girly but ok. we have congolese music blasting (my buddy fally!) and are in search for supplies. many, many bottles of water, but i really have my eyes set on the fresh baguettes, avocados, peanuts, and pineapples. i could survive on that. every time i see a stand, or someone with what i want on their head emma and gaston say, no, not here, just a bit further. finally we are out of yaoundé and i'm seeing my opportunity fade. i better see some pineapples! don't worry, says emma, we will pick some up in hawaii. 
yup, lo and behold an hour away mountains, and mountains, and mountains of pineapples. 5 for a buck, ladies coming from all sides and throwing them into our car. in the next town i am told, "too late for peanuts," until a guy comes cruising along with a big basket on his head. it's 500 francs for one dented ammunition casing full of peanuts. yesss!
in the next dusty town gaston says it's our last chance for a restaurant. already this town is without power and only one bar of cell phone network. we buy some beef from a guy grilling it over a warm fire. he hands over a slice and a toothpick to taste and we nod, ok, we'll take it. he tears off a piece of dark paper that was formerly a cement bag and wraps it up with some plantains to go. to my dismay the yellow powder he pointed to which i said "yeah, go for it!" is suuuuuuper spicy. the only beverages available to wash it down are 65cl bottles of fanta. 
i ask emma how much further and he says, so it takes 9 hours to get about halfway there, and since we only left at 10, well...he trails off. you're not supposed to ride in the dark so using simple math it seems we have spent a whole day on our voyage but are only 1/3 of the way...
later on the tarmac ends and the road turns into a mars red dust bowl, kicked up by 18 wheelers hauling giant, gargantuan loads of massive tree trunks, meters in diameter, hundreds of years worth of natural, brown wood, spray painted with codes and company names. the trucks keep coming, and coming. 
the front..
and the rear

all the vegetation lining the road is the same bright red, along with all the houses, the kids, their soccer balls. "and this is where the cameroon forest goes!" screams gaston. it's just like the movie i watched on the plane, i can't imagine what it's like inside of these huts with no window panes, with african print curtains as doors. dust probably covering everything. the houses are mostly crooked drab huts, with well appointed gravestones centered in their front yards, presumbaly the patriarch. they are covered with bright clean blue and white tiles and free of red dust, either maintained by their owners, or the goats who sit on them contently, probably enjoying a cool surface. close your windows! we resort to the a/c. our vehicle slowly turns from white to red. the houses that are just a few meters further from the road seem spared, why aren't the houses built further away? or maybe they were here before the road. who knows. every once in a while there is a truck broken down, or worse flipped over in a ditch, spilling its contents into palmy forests, somehow just managing to avoid the villages. except when it's the onion truck, then people are all scurrying to scoop up errant vegetables as we run them over plop plop plop. 

not a scene from interstellar

 we finally arrive to some town that resembles all the others, and check into a hotel, which is really just some relic house way past its heyday with a bunch of guys scurrying around. it was probably grand back in the day, but the picture frames are all dusty and broken and crooked, the oulets hang awkwardly out of holes in the walls and the screen windows look like someone punched their giant fist through them. there's a restaurant, but no one serving food, and the beer is lukewarm. there's a generator though, i delicately plug my computer into a dismembered socket and see sparks fly. there's actually water in the shower, though it's kinda brown. i show gaston how to toss the frisbee and as we are playing i see a fluffy white dog standing delicately atop his dog house, he looks like a polar bear balancing on the last piece of arctic ice. i go over and he wags his tail eagerly. the stench of piss and shit overwhelms me and i hop back from sea of termites and fire ants all around the tree which he is tightly chained to, the leash actually stuck in the ridge of the roof of his house holding him at an awkward angle. his food and water bowls are as dry, flipped over and haven't seen any contents in days. i look closer and notice his nose is basically rotting flesh, covered in flies and bugs, it's almost falling off. this animal is being tortured and he will haunt me for the rest of my life. every time i approach he gets all excited and wants to come and get pet, but i'm worried he has rabies, or maybe flesh eating disease and i'm scared to get close. i toss over some biscuits and he paws them and devours them with a rage. i ask one of the employees sitting under a tree if he ever eats or gets water, and why they are torturing him and i get the usual laugh, haha, white girl, it's just a dog. it's actually the same laugh i got when i asked if they serve breakfast (i was merely pointing at the yellowed sign that read breakfast: 7-10am). at night all the dogs of the village howl together like wolves in a sort of trance and i dream about letting the fluffy boy go. in the morning i make an attempt, his chain is literally drilled into the tree and he's too fucking stupid and affectionate for me to get close without him trying to nuzzle and snuggle his nasty wound towards my waist and i back away with tears in my eyes. i actually hope that he dies quickly and painlessly, though my biscuits ironically probably gave him more days to suffer.    
as we load up the truck we notice it has a flat. the driver replaces the tire and we need to bring the flat one to get fixed. this gives us a chance to go into town and get some coffee, and some nice guys cook up an omelette served with avocados and onions and mayo. gaston asks me if i have food allergies and i say no, and he says, "because the last guy i took out here spent a week on the toilet."
oh, that kind of food allergies! well i have a stomach of steel, mostly. gaston says good, because that meat from yesterday made me quite sick. that's a good sign... 
i am drinking my instant coffee with condensed milk when this man comes by and i'm like, he looks old, yet,, he's just really small! gaston introduces me to another gaston, a ba'aka pygmie who works for WWF. mini-gaston! i exclaim before i instantly regret it and wince at my words. he asks for a ride to his village and we're all sure, just meet us over there at the truck. he rubs his chin and says, i need to go to the coiffeur, but i will be fast, don't leave without me! 20 minutes later the spare is repaired and we are driving up and down the little main street, calling out, gaston! gaston! and honking. we go to every hairdresser - this town has 400m of a mainstreet and about 20 places to get your haircut. we pull up to every one and emma yells out, hey, have you seen petit gaston? he's really small! little ba'aka guy, can't miss him! and the person would respond, oh, that little man? he was just here but we were full so he went there...finally i say listen guys, we are so behind, sorry but we can't wait for petit gaston anymore and we drive away when suddenly petit gaston comes running, his little legs moving so fast i am making the giddeegiddeegideegidee sound in my head and he jumps in. i forgot a sweater! he says. it's 35 degrees and he ran back to his house to get a wool sweater. 
we continue along, going over a cool river ferry with some fun people who enjoy having their picture taken. we get to gaston's village and yup, it's ba'aka. cool leafy huts and tiny people. some guy comes over from the road and photobombs our session and pretends he's the ba'aka's best friend, but he's actually a gold miner, coming to ask them to take him into the forest. we talk about it later and yeah, everyone comes and exploits the poor ba'aka, known for their excellent forest and hunting skills, while their forests and wildlife disappear... 
we carry on through more villages and smouldering fields which used to be forest, and trucks with logs. we start our work, getting out occasionally to walk into the forest or a field and take some GPS coordinates and photos. we find a place that is selling plantains and he haggle with a bunch of shirtless guys. we go to put it on the roof of the truck and emma lets out a howl. put his back out or something...shit. he can barely walk but he drives us to the nearest clinic - 30km of bumpy roads away. we get to this desolate building and it's all ebola posters, and a few scary ones about genital herpes, and an official price list for operations. 60,000 CFA for a hernia, 80,000 if it's complicated. 
the end is the worst part
i'm thinking they'll give emma a massage or crack his back or something, but no, they give him an injection. the doctor is a young handsome fellow wearing a WWF shirt. i elbow Gaston, joking, turning the tables for once, hey, is the young doctor single? gaston says, "that man has a job, he certainly got captured by a cameroonian woman long ago." i say, winking, polygamy, right? emma winces in pain - i have two wives! gaston nods in dismay "and you have twice the problems, my friend." i later find out that all of emma's 8 kids are from the one wife. the other "does not give birth, she just helps with care." interesting. i think of all the guys who blow me kisses from the side of the road (which i theatrically catch and land on my cheek) they are just losers who only like me because i have a job!
we are soon back on the road, after visiting a chicken coop set up by a peace corps volunteer some 5 years back. they all talk animatedly about her, she was so dynamic! she did wonderful things! i think, now that's a pretty badass legacy to have...will people remember me? 
occasionally pass these police checkpoints, with a gendarme sleeping under a tree, while his wooden board with nails on it stops all cars coming through. they amble over and shake our hand, trade pleasantries with emma. this one guy looks right at me, "ashley's replacement???" you know ashley? she was my neighbor! and he goes on and on...sacrée ashley...
they guys notice i have become quiet, i've stopped saying eeeeeee! every time i see a baby goat or pig, i no longer take pictures of gaston, mouth breathing while cluthing his worn paperback entitled "everything is negotiable in life."
are you sick?? do you need to stop?
no, i'm just thinking...     

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

i cameroun to cameroun

i was invited back to cameroon exactly a year after my first visit. i quickly obtained a visa, reconnected with all the old yaoundé peeps and boarded by air brussels flight on a brisk summer morning in berlin. halfway to belgium, the stewardess who is taking orders for cold easyjet style sandwiches comes over and says "i see you are connecting to cameroon, we'd like to offer you a complimentary drink!" which was welcome, but her tone slightly inflected with pity, was also kinda wierd, innit? 
upon boarding in brussels i noticed my seat was next to some gentleman who locked eyes with me and was luridly patting the space next to him and i oh so smoooothly took an aisle seat a few rows over. a few hours later he sat across from me and even though i twirled my fake wedding ring in my fingers and pointed to my earphones mouthing "i can't hear you" he stared at me like an awkward baby before giving me all 4 of his phone numbers, along with his chicken entree. he grabbed my arm forcefully saying "eat it! eat it! seeing  eat makes me happy!" until i had a steward intervene, as our gentleman's cognac breath reached flammable levels. does this happen to anyone else? during the remaining bumpy ride over the sahara i traded my usual airborne film criteria from "anything with ryan gosling" to "space movies" because i have realized, there's nothing better than actually feeling like you are going through a wormhole with mathew mconaghey. it's the fifth dimension.
in yaoundé (thankfully the first of three stops this plane would be making) i eased through a sortof phone booth with no doors, the sides decorated with cartoons of people puking blood and having ebola. ebola screening! a guy ten feet away held a sort of radar gun like a cop, peered into the screen for a few seconds and gave each individual a thumbs up. i thankfully didn't seen anyone get a thumbs down. i, having also watched a madonna video struck a vogue pose and got double thumbs up. ebola free! for now.
my taxi driver greeted me with a huge sign with my name and hand drawn panda on it, far more appropriate for anti kremlin political demo. he brought us to his yellow corolla with "le saint" sprawled across the back windshield, muppet fur seats which are delightful in 30 degree weather and working front AND back lights! at the exit for the parking lot i was delighted to see that it's the same price from 0-4 hours: 500 francs. my taxi man pleads for a discount with the tollman taking his hands, my brother, my brother...his brother picks the giant sign, which had been forgotten on the roof - ok, i'll take this he says! 
no, no, not the sign!

the guy jams it awkwardly through the window and we peel away as it scrapes my face and blocks my view for the next 20 minutes as i try to maneuver the thing over my head, through the seatbelt...argh! i finally get around to opening my window and breathing in the hot air fresh with smoky forest fires...loud distorted club music and mopeds...yaoundé here i am!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

plum tarts.

Throughout our childhood, my brother and I had the very sweet fortune to be shipped off every summer from Long Island, NY to our homeland in south central France. More precisely, to a tiny village of 20 souls called "La Salle Prunet," named after its sickly looking twisted plum trees which line the narrow alleys and drop rotting fruit all over car hoods. La Salle is five hours from the nearest airport, or, a nine hour grueling drive from Paris in a Renault 4, also known as a “quatrelle.”
view from la rivière
Grandmother, or "Mamé" at the wheel, grandfather, “Pépé,” snoring and overflowing from the headrestless front seat upholstered in a 70s brown plaid. My brother and I in the back with the dog, Chadel (old Patois name). We would leave at the crack of dawn, the car enshrouded in mist and fog, the quatrelle reeking already of old people, dog, motion sickness and the snack staple hard boiled eggs (we never, ever, ever ate at rest stops), all of which would only get worse after our departure.
Back then, and I'm talking more than 20 years ago, the highway was only built until about halfway, somewhere after Clermont-Ferrand where we had the choice to take the longer smoother route, or the shorter, but much more twisty turny way. It was my choice, and I always picked #2, and ended up vomiting somewhere along the Col de Montmirat, over a decrepit stone wall barrier deep into the valley below, with a fabulous view of Les Cevennes, its breeze blowing fresh heather into my tears.
No car radio, no air conditioning, windows that never seemed to slide open enough. The dog would bark wildly at anything resembling a cow and scratch up my legs and spray drool all over. Mamé would smile into the rearview mirror, seeing a cloud of kids and dog hair, anticipating the wonderful two months ahead: July and August full of river swimming and biking and hiking and mountains and french food and friends. This torture was so worth it. It wasn't until someone had the bright idea to drug Chadel could we actually talk to each other and get even more excited about what was to come, as angry truck drivers swerved dangerously to pass us on the mountain bends.
One year, there was a new boy in the village with a wallet chain, doc martins and dark rebel red pants. Some bad kid from the Loire whose parents shipped him to the country to mellow out for the summer. We apparently became boyfriend/girlfriend for a few days, he, like many, allured by my “foreignness.” My brother and I were known throughout the region as “les américains,” fantasy characters they only knew from TV shows like Diff’rent Strokes (Arnold et Willis). Our relationship was punctuated by a ceremony by the river where we counted down from three, breathed in and kissed. It was totally gross, horrifying even. He wanted to symbolize this union by trading something, so we could each carry an object to remind us of the other. I gave him what I had on me, my cool American watch, and he gave me his switchblade, which Mamé later found and freaked out over. The night before he was meant to leave with everyone else known as the "july kids" (you were either July or August, if you weren't lucky enough to have two full months of vacation like me), he smoothly asked for his knife back, because he would need it, and he returned my watch. And there it was, loose ends all tied up, everything as before, the bookends of each summer.
Mamé cooked whatever we wanted, which was more often the pasta mix she was making for Chadel, ground meat cooked in slabs of butter the size of a deck of cards. Upon our return to the states we would get our annual check-up and blood tests, to which our pediatrician’s eyebrows would leap above his eyeglasses and he would scold our parents: “so much cholesterol, in a child! France is not good for their hearts!” Yet, after only a few weeks good ole american sustenance, our blood returned quickly to normal.
It was when the doorbell rang in late august, around lunchtime, you knew it was the end. It was a young local girl, holding a bag of ripe green Reine Claude plums for the "fête des prunes," the annual plum tart fest held in the courtyard of the single room town hall.
Though Mamé never socialized with any of the "vieux ploucs" of the village who spent every evening on the bench near the fountain talking about the weather, tart day was an exception. We would drive to our great aunt's house to pick up this enormous pie tray. I recall it being larger than my wingspan, a low sided metal thing with crinkly sides, always sticky and dusty from last year's use, and barely fit in the trunk of the car. Our tart would not only be the biggest, but the best, and if you didn't already know that it was ours, we made that clear by adorning it with some Americana - a dollar bill or maybe a statue of liberty or a star spangled flag of dough.
Three days before the event, most of the village would gather before the communal oven. Every town has one, a little stone building with a cast iron door head-level above the ground, opening into a cavernous stone space. (Also a classic hiding spot for some to cache their cigarettes during a dog walk). The men made a huge fire inside the oven, opening the door periodically to fan out the ashes, add more wood and wipe sweat from their heads with their forearms.
somethin's cookin'
On the day of the fête Mamé rolled out the dough with a mostly empty bottle of Pastis as we halved the plums. Now here came the crucial moment: anyone who makes plum tarts puts them open side facing down, so you have nice little half plum balls, which you see in every bakery and fancy restaurant around. This might look very nice, but according to Mamé the people who do this are backwards classless yokels. Because all the juice comes out of the plums and makes the dough a soggy mess! no no no. We place our plums up, like the aristocrats we are.
When ready, we paraded our tart proudly and carefully through the village on the way to the oven, handing it like a giant present to the men to cook, making sure it was placed nice and center and not relegated to the edges where it cooks unevenly.
The first year our pie was the only one with upwards facing plums. Over the sounds of the live accordion I heard people commenting on it, in their southern accents, as they held a piece above their heads, studying the crisp and sturdy and dry underside, as the other pie slices drooled through the paper plates. Over the years more and more pies would turn over their plums, I guess you can say we started a revolution.
Mamé has long since passed away, as for the the pie dish, I was told I could pry it from my cousin’s cold dead hands. When I moved to Berlin, my brother - now  professional chef, whose life lessons to me comprise pickling recipes and “don’t wear make-up because it makes you look like a cheap dancer at Le Moulin Rouge” - sent me one of his characteristic French eBay gifts: a nondescript brown package from some weird address I have never heard of. It was a brown metal pie dish, with the low crinkled sides and the bottom part that comes out so it's easy to put on a plate and serve. A replica of our famous tray that actually fits in a conventional oven.
More recently, I met a charming East German man who after a few dates invited me over for dinner. He seemed to connect with my American humour and open to culinary variety. After our first kiss he pressed a little gift into my hand, a cute magnet for my fridge. He had this way of looking deep into my eyes and soul, so I wanted to impress him with dessert. Mamé was the first one to tell me that the way to man's heart is through his stomach. His kitchen being rudimentary, I brought over the pie dish along with some pastry dough I quickly kneaded after work. I sliced up some organic apples, covered them with a simple cinnamon and sugar mixture overlaid with a lattice top geometry that would make Monsieur Eiffel blush. We ended up eating the pie for breakfast (nudge nudge, wink wink) and, still dizzy from his gaze and touch, I forgot the pie dish in the sink with the dirty dishes. In the week that followed, my impulsive, impatient and self deprecating humour went horribly wrong via these newfangled electronic messages, and I seemingly convinced him I was a complete sociopath. To the point where he wouldn’t see or speak to me again, and, well, I probably seemed quite obsessed with a pie dish.
I eagerly hope to be reunited with my dish, so I can date again, bake again, especially next summer’s plum pie. And so I don’t have to tell my brother what happened to his gift and listen to his sarcastic response. While I can always laugh it off as another dating disaster that made my friends at the bar cry into their drinks, what I really long for is those simpler times, where things made sense, and were clear. Things happened for a reason, and there was always an equilibrium status you could gravitate slowly back to, like in a quatrelle. I have this magnet, whereas he has both my pie dish and some of my pride, but I'd still be up for a simple, humble trade, to return to normal, honor my heritage, plums face-up to the sky.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

the mud. THE MUD

the first time i cried in front of a boy it was when i was 8 and my neighbor from across the pond, sean york, invited me over to watch a movie. it was "the neverending story." at one point the little hero and his horse are walking through the forest, and the horse, artax gets caught in quicksand. you can see terror in the acting horse's eyes, and at one point, the horse just gives up and resigns to his death and Atreyu starts crying, tugging on the reins, like no, don't give up don't leave me alone. i still get choked up thinking about it. during the movie, even though i had seen it before (!) i tried my best to hide my sniffles and when the first credits rolled i just ran home in a train of tears. the next time i saw sean york he concussed me with a 6-inch thick piece of ice from the lake. totally in love with me. 
anyway, in the zambezi delta they seem to have never come up with the idea of a pier or dock. you realize how much you take these things for granted in the rest of world, particularly when the camp, which we left at a delightful high tide is now 10m above water level, resting on the blackest, slickest, deepest mud you have every seen in your life. 
docks are for losers

to get to terra firma the boat is essentially launched at full speed into the thick of it. you don't need to brace yourself or anything, the mud slowly, delicately receives our vessel like the welcoming bosom of your grandma. from there, you can take the one approach, which is to run as fast as you can and hope your weight doesn't let you sink. the downside is that any slip up and your are face first in it. the second approach is to just accept the mud, be one with it, and deliberately strategically place your feet not too far apart so that even when they are hip deep you can pull it out and keep your balance. almost like walking on awkward stilts. 
the first day, people were notably impressed by my fancy sport sandals, which kept me comfortably above the mud. "woah, i need a pair of those!" yells semo, who until now has been leading the pack with his brilliant scuba neoprene booties. helga says braggingly, "yeah well i would have brought those too if they weren't so terribly hideous." 
as i walk confidently to the boat, my lunch in one hand, the satellite phone in the other, i feel an unworldly being delicately unfasten one of my fancy sport sandals. the suction of the mud holds the sandal firm and out comes my foot. fuck! i try to slip my foot back into the straps, and pull it out but it's no use. my hands are full, i hold my lunch with my teeth and place my sandal-less foot aside. it sinks, it sinks. the mud seeps through my toes. nothing has ever touched me there like that. i tell myself "you're at the spa. mud bath. fancy mud. minerals. age defying." i reach my hand deep into the  hole where my sandal is. i take hold, my whole shoulder and now my chin, in the mud. it's like i'm playing twister. i am breathing through my nose, trying not to let my lunch bag fall from my mouth.
eureka! i pull the sandal up, as a huge sucking noise is the angry scream of the mud, losing this battle.  i flick a wave of mud at the boat, the passengers mildly unhappy about having their faces streaked with brown. yeah, i didn't wear those sandals anymore after that. the mud won.    
those are my feet

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

not even a little abrigado?

so every day upon our return from field work, a waiting line of sorts would greet us at our camp. women and their babies, young kids from the village, all in a line with their big droopy eyes just staring. it was their version of going to the movies. they would follow me to my tent and stare at me as i gathered my towel and bath products to head for the little privacy wall that hid our shower.
at the movies
 when i come back out, i am wrapped in my tiny sports towel, screaming and flailing my arms and running in a benny hill zig-zag as a futile attemp to trick the angry mosquitos, they are still there. and no, they don't even pick up a shoe i dropped or anything, nor would they beg for anything, i guess. but the way they would turn the breast sucking baby in my direction, his mouth taking the saggy boob with him as he turns around, and now i see his distended belly, he might as well have had a cardboard sign on him that read "will stare blankly for food." and so yeah, the only thing that would make them go away would be a prize from my goody bag. my imported individually wrapped 100 calorie packs of trader joes nut mix, beef jerky from south africa, gummies, organic granola bars...these were part of my "emergency food" stockpile to thwart hunger on those days on the boat when i couldn't handle the canned sardines anymore. so the only way to disperse the audience was to hand off some stuff. by the end of the trip, i didn't have anything left, so they stayed longer, after the sun set, the hungry whites of their eyes ambushing me on the way to the toilet. whenever kunat would give them anything as they walked ambivelently away he would say, like to pre-schoolers "and what do we say when someone gives us something? tttttthaaaaank. you!" and they would mumble and walk away. 
and i'm not asking anybody to kiss my feet but yeah, a thank you would be nice?
it was so weird because just earlier in the day, we would be at one of these villages, scavenging for anything edible or drinkable to buy so we could diversify from the sardines and mango juice. ok, yes, we ran out of whiskey on the second night so anything alcoholic, no matter how home made or bad smelling was a hot ticket item. that was usually semo's job, no sooner had we tied up the boat that he was already scheming something with some disheveled fisherman. but what was crazy was that more than half of the time people wouldn't let us pay for anything. it was crazy, this guy is standing here in tattered rags, barefoot in front his hut which is swaying in the wind, with three kids and skinny dogs running around, and he's all, "nah it's ok, just take this 5kg of scrimp." or manioc. and we'd insist, no, really, let us pay, or give you something. how about this mango juice? and he would inspect the juicebox, smelling it like it was a dead animal and they say, nah, it's ok. in the rare occasion he would toss it to the dog. you can imagine we would be profusely thanking them. you really don't need to do this, we can give you cash! this situation was so reversed and weird. but ok. one guy was smoking a huge spliff, rolled out of a receipt or something. jackpot. semo is all, ok we'll take a little little bit. ok, a little more. how about that whole pile, we have no whiskey. i pull out a few meticai bills. he says "it's illegal to sell marijuana, you must give it to you. here." um, ok!
back at the camp, i am taking all my clothes down from the "drying tree" where they have been hanging all day. they have all been poorly washed, despite my cool expensive organic camping soap, what with the dirty mud water, everything is all crunchy and flat like newspaper or shark skin or something.
the women are still staring, i ask kunat if we can't pay them to do something, a lot of women have been bringing us super clean water on 20l jugs on their heads every day, maybe these ones want to wash our clothes or something? 
kunat laughs, "you can try, but they will just complain. that the clothes are too dirty, that the soap isn't the right soap...women. all they do is complain. that is their job!" ok. noted.  
so i take a t-shirt and hand it to an old woman wearing some sort of baby jumper as a tank top. i have no more food to give away. take this t-shirt, it's a lost cause. it's a she looks at it, holds it up to her chest and something like "it's not my size." 
you're wearing a baby jumper, i'm a fat european next to your tiny skeleton build, trust me, this is your size.
"do you have anything smaller?"
let me check in the back. no, this is all we have. take it or leave it. or give it your sister, i don't know.
"i have 5 sisters. i will need 5 shirts."
then she starts gesturing all grumpy, storms off. 

you're welcome!! i look over to kunat who raises his cup of coconut beer, "see, i told you so! women!! number 1 complainers!"    

Monday, August 25, 2014

setting up camp in the mangroves

the next morning we wake up early to pack the bago-bago, which would bring our supplies to the campsite. the bago-bago is the lifeline of the Delta region, it brings goods up and down the river...albeit at a snails pace (we gave it a two-hour head start but still caught up with it midway). it's called the bago-bago because you can hear ist rusty engine from a mile away bagobagobagobagobagobago, it sounds like a coughing lawnmower.
so we packed our little speedboat boat at this little beach where women and children were bathing and washing dishes and clothes with sand.

we pack the bago-bago, arrange our own motorboat, load it up, go back to town to get whiskey and cigarettes (this is important - you always want to stand next to a smoker when there are mosquitos), trying not to get stuck in the presidential motorcade and madness, and finally we're off. we wear our smelly and uncomfortable lifevests, the outboard engine finally starts (the cord which you pull to the start the motor has come up so kunat needs to open the lid, wrap the cord around, pull, start again...). it's been hours since we have been up and we are finally ready to go! i am settling in my seat, everyone is getting comfortable and kunat asks
"anyone hungry? let's stop for lunch" doh! we go maybe 20 m upriver and dock at the same place we had dinner the night before. after all this work and waiting and loading it's like we've gone full circle back to the beginning. the men order beers and here we go. we still catch up with the bago-bago, and yes, we arrive at camp when it's already night, cold, and plenty mosquito-ey.
there are a few huts lit up by the moon sitting beyond a field of mud. there is a fire in one hut which we quickly huddle around. it's super smokey and stings our eyes, but that is way more bearable than the mosquitos. a bunch of blank eyed fisherman are standing around in puffy winter jackets, sucking on plastic bags of gin. Helga looks at me, like, is this seriously how we will spend the next 8 days? i pretend to ignore her and we sip on whiskey from the bottle and eventually, we hear the sound of the bago-bago. everyone helps unload, but the women are allowed to sit and do nothing, not bad.
we set up a few tents and try to sleep. in the morning we see what the place looks like. huts, tents, amid a pile of supplies and a wafting stench of fish.  kunat is wearing an awesome t-shirt that says "Trouble finds me, even in camouflage." and here is where we will be for the next 8 days. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

from quelimane to marromeu

we leave quelimane, a serene city of bike taxis and old churches, through dust and villages to get to marromeu a hot sweaty dusty mess. there is a main square full of vodacom propaganda and insane loud music. the president is coming tomorrow apparently. we check in to our hotel, a bunch of bare creepy rooms, with boxes of condoms everywhere. helga and i are all, ewwwwww, while semo is all yesssss! "the man must condomize, doctorélie!" we try to explain that a place with condoms usually means a place with lots of prostitutes, you know, people you pay to have sex with.
"the man always buys his woman's drinks, pay the bills and rent and her clothes" thus, the logic that all women are essentially prostitutes. this is the first of many interesting, sexist discussions we will soon have...
we meet kunat, our fearless camp leader and boat driver, a former elite military/professional hunter who has led fancy expeditions all over the continent. he has given up on shooting animals though, says he finds scientists much more interesting company.
we go to all the stores for food and supplies. the indian has rice, the chinese has cups and utensils (which are all super cheap and only end up lasting 1 day in the camp), some plastic clothespins we quickly regret for their terrible quality, etc...there is lots of sitting around, admiring all the indian Hero brand bicycles, and back to the seedy bar near our pension for the argentina football match. we drink j&b whiskey which costs about 25 cents.

be a hero
everyone else is drinking gin out of plastic bags. helga and i realize this is the last world cup game we will see, and that since the Munich airport, which had a huge outdoor public viewing movie stadium, the screens have gotten smaller and smaller. this one is in a cage affixed to the wall, you have to peer around the bars to see the score. so this is it, the last day of mobile phone coverage, last day of something even close to civilization, because our boat leaves for the delta in the morning. sleep tight, don't let the prostitutes bite! 
help yourself!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

mozambique mangrove expedition

so in july 2014, i was sent to the zambezi delta in mozambique to ground truth some satellite imagery - basically, to see what is on the ground and compare it to what it looks like from space. remote sensing becomes close sensing! i gathered my awesome consultant Helga who despite her old lady name is my age, and she helped prepare all the maps and data. we  got some sweet GPS units, satellite phone and walkie talkie equipment, my quick dry pants and fancy sport sandals, malaria meds and flew to maputo. i gave a presentation at the University on the first day, where they kept calling me "doctora." thanks guys i'm flattered but i don't have a no no, it's ok, in mozambique you call anyone who is more educated than you a "doctor" the students said. ok, sounds good to me. though "doctora aurélie" got a little redundant so they started calling me "doctorélie." much better.
doctor hugo, a shy, quiet voiced junior professor and dorcia, one of his students would join us on our trip. we printed out tons of datasheets, maps, and prepared everything for 8 days in the mangroves, to be completely cut off, no phone, no internet, no world cup final! no electricity, no running water, no freshwater. just...mud, mosquitos, mangroves, and mud. and more mud. and mosquitos.
the next day we flew to quelimane, after a 5 hour no-reason delay on the mozambiquan airline LAM. 30 minutes after we check in, hugo gets a text message, and says, "there is maybe no plane to quelimane today." we sit and wait. the airport is all new and fancy glass and white metal, with 4 gates. there doesn't seem to be a single plane anywhere, just blue sky and runway. we are offered a free lunch in the cafeteria where all the baggage handlers eat. note to self: when the mozambiquans look at the food selection and order just white rice and nothing more, don't ask for the fish.

a couple two-hour naps later, this white no-name plane arrives. i find out later it is called "the white dove." it's some south african leaser plane with a cargo crew who speak mostly afrikaans flies for LAM because they can't get their shit together. apparently, there is a wonderful 70 year old flight attendant but we didn't see her. "maybe she died" hugo says. the plane makes about 20 stops, in the most terrible order, zig zagging the whole country, it's like a flying bus. seriously, you barely get served a drink and the seat belt sign comes on, "we are now landing in " at one point we were served frozen chicken. helga and i resort to buying wine. it's not even south african wine, it's from chile. and it's about 50 cents. they ask me if i want ice. i don't know, "is it as cold as the chicken?". they don't have any change on the flight attendant goes, well, you could just order 4 more wines and then you don't need change.
"well how many more stops are there?"
it depends, we might give up on going to Tete, it's getting too late.
cheers Helga, at least it's a boeing.

we finally make it to quelimane and meet Semo, a local student whom gregarious and entertaining do not even begin to properly describe. everything that comes out of his mouth is hilarious, i want him to star in my movie. he has this way of speaking english where he drops the final syllable. "the mosquit(oes), their bites are so itch(y)! shall we go to the disc(o) and drink whisk(ey)?"
the van was meant to come pick us up to bring us to our next stop on our trip, marromeu, broke down. a replacement is sent, and i must inspect it. some weary skinny fellow shows up in this beat up local minibus, smoking a cigarette. i look inside, the duct taped homemade seats aren't even bolted to the floor, no seatbelts, and the stereo is broken. the driver exclaims that he knows the road better than the curves of his girlfriend. the engine starts, i ask him to come back tomorrow promptly at 7 am for our trip, and no drinking tonight amigo! he waves goodbye and stalls 3 or 4 times before the next intersection. we sleep a fitfull night in a very likely to have bedbugs mattress which seems to be filled with wet cardboard.
the driver shows up the next morning at 8 (africa time, i planned it, breakfast only started at 7 anyway).
and we're off. the driver is a madman. no respect for the proper side of the road, he just swerves to avoid the massive potholes, passing people on the left, right, who cares. he has the heat on (it's winter, a chilly 26 degrees) and i have to open the window to cool down. my face and hair are immediately covered in 2cm of dust. we get stopped by the Police or Military a whole bunch of times. everything time it's the same, they come up the window, stare at me, try to peer inside to see my hips or my bag, and then ask "are you mozambiquan?"
"passport." and they flip threw it, for an hour, trying to find some stamp or whatever, and usually only want to give it back if you give them candy or a kiss. i ask how old the guy is, 18! i am old enough to be your mother, amigo, let us go.

the fourth or fifth time we get stopped i try and wise up
"are you mozambiquan?"
pause...stare...narrow the eyes...

from the back of the bus "doctorélie, you can never outsmart the mozamb authorit!"

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

the congolese perfection of: CONFUSE & DIFFUSE

ooooh boy have these sneaky!....conniving!...masters at the art of confuse and diffuse. this is a process i invented! i am almost in awe.

my current defeat before the civil aviation administrion was met with one glimmer of hope on my last day. i got our office director to make one last threatening phone call to argue our case. before he can even finish a sentence the director says, "but why are you calling, we have a meeting later today, we can talk face to face." wha? we have been trying to get a meeting all week but they have been avoiding us. so of course our guy says, yeah sure, we know about the meeting, see you then.
but we have no idea when the meeting is. this is their strategy, then they can say we never showed up. zing. so sneaky. so i send our driver over to their offices to sniff it out. he goes to the front desk and glances over the book. it's at 4 pm. oddly late for a meeting, but perfect. all the time in the world to plan.
but gahh, like before any meeting you have to herd cats. where is the driver, he was just here, why did he go out now to buy phone credit, who has the keys, these are the wrong keys, why does this car have no gas and piles of bags of rubber boots in it, do we have all the documents's madness. so we go. the plan that we amass as many white people as we can to just fill his tiny office. i grab the south african guy who doesn't even speak french. he's tying his shoes, come on Buddy! or we'll leave you behine!

the director of CAA is not happy, he speaks very softly, you can barely hear his voice over the noisy air conditioner. he gets feisty, saying we haven't followed protocol. what protocol? and then he weaves through the process, perfectly confusing us...but we did that...we sent that already received that...but we...then he changes the steps, saying that comes after this step and before that step but in between the middle step and by the end we have no idea what the heck is going on. drats. he says there is one critical letter missing. i turn to my logistics guy, seriously serge, out of the 50 letters we sent last week, i recall writing that letter..the director says he never saw it. we don't have it with us. crap.
so where do we stand now?

"but your permit to import the plane has been approved, all your paperwork is in order." which is a distinct change from the tune we heard yesterday. but who cares! we are happy! success! i grab the folder, scan it over, all stamped and stuff, looks good! the plane can start flying here tomorrow! woohoo!

back at the Office I scan the import permit...wait, it has the wrong license number for the plane. if we bring "a different" plane they will not let it in. fffffuuuuuuu%&$%.
the project manager goes through our files and finds the letter the director says he never received - it is stamped with his signature, dated more than a week ago. double fffffuuuuuu%&%.

we've been totally outsmarted.
it is now 17h30. of course the offices are closed now. director is gone for the day and probably won't show up until 11 am tomorrow. we will lost another 48 hours on this.

i have to commend them for their brilliance in deceiving us. even i wouldn't have thought of that...oh, you win this round, congo, but this is not the end!! now i want to fight more than ever!!  

Monday, June 9, 2014

another last night in kin

my flight was scheduled for tomorrow. we have no flight permit, i have done nothing but chase people around for the past 2 weeks, the whole thing a failure. one guy. one single guy is blocking the paperwork because he didn't get his share. he wants 2,000 USD, which i would pay if we had the money but our safe is just empty. the plane from south africa has cash, but since it can't arrive, forget it. we are going to have to go up the ladder, get the ministry of transport involved, the german embassy. my sweet korean project manager is begging me to stay another week to help move things along. 
i go back to civil aviation to try and meet with someone, when i arrive the doors shut delicately, just like my invtroverted cousin who would rather play video games than say greet family. on the way back, without asking, my driver stops at the air france office. "go in and see what it costs to stay." i go in, halfheartedly  meandering among the people wrapping up their bushmeat and illicit wares. i go to the counter where you are meant to take a number. there's a bowl of folded paper, like it's a raffle. i sift for the smallest digit, 10!  i sit and wait and check my blackberry. my colleague who flew out sunday sends me an email how he caught a man checking in 2 ivory tusks at this very place. he chased him for 3 hours at charles de gaulle only to have the authorities say, "sorry, he's in shengen now, nothing we can do." he is writing to me from the hospital, he has dengue. "don't you just love your job?" 
i go to the desk with a guy reloading the paper in his dot matrix printer. he eagerly helps me, all excited because there is another shapiro on the flight, a man named avi, do you know him?
it only costs 100$ to change until thursday. i think about my cats, my balcony. i say i'll come back and pay with cash, i don't have enough on me anyway.
the rest of the day is more frustrating phone calls, getting nowhere. i went to lunch with a woman on mission here, and has not been feeling well and her hair is falling out. the stress. 
the tradition on my last night is to get everyone to go to limoncello, so i reserve a table for 12 at the fancy overpriced italian restaurant run by my former roommates maria and filiberto. 
i am the first one there, i order a bottle of pinot grigio. i get a message from marie, she and her boyfriend got pax'd this afternoon! it's like a civil wedding thing in france, turns out they got a last minute appointment on pentecost monday, usually a holiday. what's better is that he has a beard and long hair and looks like jesus so it's a match made in heaven, pardon the pun. something else to celebrate. ooh and not only that, they tell me the french embassy servers got grilled in the power outage on sunday, they lost all their data, which means no one gets their visas, which means my flight will be empty. double whammy. 
everyone shows up and we are trying to explain the pax.
"marriage by fax?"
"can it be undone?" 
"c'est du concubinage ou quoi?"
lots more wine. the taboo topic is the flight permit, which all my friends/colleagues know is just not the thing to talk about. the food is delicious, service is slow, as usual. my feet are eaten to bits by mosquitos. people are making toasts about marriage. it's grand. 
tonight is the first time we just split the bill and we actually have a surplus, which never happens. so we order rounds of whiskey. 
a few tables over, i see maria and filiberto sharing a pizza like newlyweds. i go to say hi, maria's hair is marvelous, she looks years younger. filiberto on the other hand looks hunched over, like my grandmother after her stroke. makes me sad. one of his eyes is droopy and he has spilled pizza sauce on his nice shirt. they ask me about the infamous plane. i tell them my trials and tribulations, civil aviation are a bunch of thieves. filiberto goes "shush! the president's pilot is sitting behind you!" i turn around to see a fat lebanese and some congolese splitting a bottle of johnny walker. if i had the nerve i would drop my business card and turn on the charm but there's no opening. i turn back. maria starts on her tirade about how much this country is broken, nothing works, all crooks, it's worthless! filiberto grabs my arm "you need to persevere! we stayed through the thick of it, look at us now! congo needs you, don't give up!" he stops the waitress and we toast to shots of delcious home made limoncello. "come back and see us! the italians will win the world cup! congo will be waiting for you!" ciao, ciao. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

this makes no sense

i was invited to papi's house for dinner. his wife mami made just about every congolese dish imaginable. it was nuts. 3 kinds of fish, foufou, beef, chicken, pundu etc. etc..and lots of beer and whiskey. i think they were trying to set me up with someone because a lot of male suitors kept coming through the door. but i was distracted. at 9pm i was meant to receive a call telling me the landing permit for my plane was approved, which meant i could continue to drink and be happy and eventually leave for germany on tuesday. but no, instead i got a call at 1130 which said i wouldn't get the permit which made me sullen and surly.
we eventually got talking about the whole situation of how f'd up the DRC is, and no one in the room could understand why the democratic republic of congo would make it so difficult for us, the german government, to give them what is essentially a 6 million € gift of airplane and satellite data to map the vast amount of forest carbon in this country, which exactly what they need to bring additional carbon investments like the 60 million $ from the World Bank, which is enabling them to get paid to protect their forests. which is almost like getting paid to do nothing, which congolese are so good at!! but nothing in the congo makes any sense.
earlier in the day, i went to civil aviation to try and meet the director again, who has been avoiding us because we busted his secretary trying to swindle us by providing a false invoice. as i was at the entrance filling out the stupid form you have to fill out everywhere with your passport number, which, i don't even have on me, i just make it up - but as i was doing so the director walked right behind me. my driver serge pulled aggressively at my elbow and i was all cut it out dude, you're messing up my handwriting, but it was too late, he slipped out behind me and got into his car, gone for the weekend. crap, 10 seconds difference and we could have cornered him in the parking lot. 
so next stop, the agency in charge or the airports and airways to determine how the areas we plan to fly with our plane might overlap with sensitive, strategic or dangerous areas. like military bases and stuff. we were told that this information, like anything in the congo, would not come cheap, and that we would probably have to pay on the order of $2,000 to get them to analyze all our different flight lines and tell us which ones to change. which actually makes sense, because it's kind of a lot of work and the whole thing is pretty complicated.
so we go to what is essentially this bombed out building at the local airport with dark corridors and flickering neon lights. the signs on the doors are all inkjet printed, with ink running down from the leaks in the ceiling, and poor vertical paragraph design like:
ice des
s et infr-
we had gotten stuck in some pretty harsh traffic, (though i got to see a whole street i didn't know with bedsheet tents on the sidewalks, which i mistook for refugee camps but discovered were actually barber shops, all narrated by serge's typical political rants), so it was 430pm on a friday when we arrived. we were lucky to find anyone still there at all. we got shuffled around from office to office but the dudes we ended up with were surprisingly friendly and helpful. ok, of course they werre flirty and sexist and asked for my number and invited me to go dancing but i am used to these things. these were some high level guys with a giant 8 foot wide map of the world from the 70s on the wall saying "i can't believe this is your first time here! welcome! we love animals!" i explained our situation and he actually called back his employees who were already at the bus stop on their way home. he told one of them to bring the table of prohibited, strategic and regulated airspaces. i look to serge like, ok, let's make sure we get a receipt for this and the guy is all, so this is what you need? let me make you a copy. and thank you, please come again! and that's how i ended up with a list of every military base, training area and strategic zone in the DRC (which admittedly has lots of typos, because there is no where on the planet that is 454 degrees S, but whatever), which i will glady sell to any chinese reading this blog. yaweh! 

Friday, June 6, 2014

the weekend news...

civil aviation has still not signed our landing permit so the plane is waiting in Angola. i figure they are all busy splitting up our cash between them, they don't have time to do their work. it is friday. if it can't come tomorrow it must wait until monday. i can't leave until this friggin' plane gets here. they might as well have confiscated my passport because i am stuck :(

i found a new place to play tennis! it's the Cercle de Kinshasa, with it's super fancy restaurant and golf course. they call it the little kindgom of Belgium. same price as the Grand Hotel but there are huge palm trees, lots of species of bats that swirl around my lobs, waiters in tuxedos, and lights! and clay courts that are flat! no hills of rocks or sand! they sell balls for 4$ each. and the ballboys have shoes and pick up the balls with their hands, rather than kicking them up with their feet like a Soccer ball. if a ball goes over the fence, they actually go and get it, rather than just giving you a dead brown one as a replacement. they actually know how to keep score, in French, not lingala. it's like Roland Garros over here, people! and i should totally bring tania to play in the annual Shoreham-Wading River Labor Day Tennis tournament on Long Island, which is the longest running tennis tourney in the world. Because if these old Country Club geezers are already freaked out by jews, and my swedish stepmother who thinks outside the box, i can't wait to see their faces when we put an African on our team!

the crocodiles do not like canned tuna. why? they loooooove cockroaches though and boy do we have plenty of those! nom nom nom.

of the 20 or something books my stepfather has given me over the years, Stringer is the first one that isn't mind numbingly boring!! it's super fun to read about all these places i know and go to, there are even people i know, and what's even more - the conspiracy theories surrounding our very own conservation Ppojects. Makes you wonder though..USAID = CIA? probably!

papi invited me to his house for dinner. i've known him 7 years but i have never been to his house to meet his wife mimi, or their new baby. he asks me if his to eat european. never say yes when a congolese offers to cook "european." it means you get a lump of overcooked pasta, no seasoning, nuthin. they don't even salt the water. no understanding of the concept of pasta sauce. naturally i want to eat home made congolese food. though my stomach has been a bit iffy today, this should just about do it for me for the weekend, which i will likely spend on the toilet. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

there is no more line between right and wrong

i met one of those old french expat guys who have lived in just about every country in central africa. and what does he say? that DRC is by far the shittiest, dirtiest, corruptest, unbearable place on the planet. tell me something i don't know buddy
marie's landlords have a little basin next to the house with fish, turtles, and adorable baby crocodiles in it. they are so cute! every 2 days they get hungry and come to the door and make little puffy noises.
[so side story is that we came home from the club late on saturday night, kinda hungry and i find marie in the kitchen hacking at a raw fish. i say, "wow, totally gross, you've really gone congolese on me!" but no, it's for the crocs!]

here crocky crocky

back to the crocs. every two days you dump pieces of raw fish onto this little pile of rocks for them to eat. there's plenty of fish to go around for everyone, the fish actually get the head, which is totally weird, and the turtles quickly come to the rocks too. but instead of everyone just eating their piece and being happy, they all want it all. so the crocs are stuffing their faces with all of it, they can't even swallow, their mouths are stuck open and they are choking, and then come the turtles, traing to grab right from the crocs mouth, stomping on his face and everything. this whole time there's a little turtle, well forget it, he's just ´the Little guy and he álways will be because he waits patiently, and only gets the bits. and eventually you have to shut the door and watch from the window because it just gets crazy. this is the exact same situation i face every day trying to get a simple permit to land a friggin' plane in Kinshasa. i am holding the fish. the corruption, blatant forgery and lying is just too much.
this country is a complete mess, a shithole with no hope and it's so obvious why. anyone who does their job right will just eventually get stepped on by a turtle.
so i went back to the civil aviation building, the really messy one with the documents everywhere. the guy insists we meet offsite so his colleagues don't listen in.
how about the grand hotel?
how about your car?
i really don't like these meetings in cars. but we go around the corner and park under a tree. we are told who to pay, how much. this is in addition to how much we need to pay him for this info, too. it's now double our budget of 10,000 USD, for something which should originally only cost 2,000. this is getting out of control. i zone out and remember how the french expat guy told me that a congolese airline had a plane inspected in Holland (of course, why do something in Congo when you can get a free flight to Europe) and the inspectors broke the door to extend their little stay in Amsterdam. when someone complained, their passport was confiscated for 3 weeks and they couldn't leave the country. what would i do if i couldn't leave this country? i look out the window at a truck full of angry military guys. they look like a big green uniformed human pile, with yellow eyes gazing out. i come back to the meeting, ok, and we need documents in duplicate, triplicate, stamped, receipt of stamped document with stamps, etc...we drive back. there is still some wheeling and dealing to be done in their local language so i let the men discuss step out of the car.
there is a guy in front of civil aviation selling peanuts, the tasty roasted and really salty ones. he puts them in a cone of paper and hands them to me. i unroll the paper as i eat, grease spots staining the text, oh look at this, a confidential communication between the UN and the airport authority in Goma. so this is where it all ends up.
i finally approve the extortion, i don't even care anymore, just bring me a receipt, get the plane here. i send my guys to the office to pay, with thousands of $ of cash in their pockets.
they call me: the fee just went up $900
"just pay it."
the poor guys empty their wallets, my finance guy has 300€ which he just exchanged with me. they convert at a sorry exchange rate. my driver chips in the 25$ i gave him to buy me phone credit. somehow they piece it together. they bring me a stamped receipt. we have our flight permit. for two planes actually, one hasn't even been inspected, because one of the inspectors we sent to south africa didn't even show up to look at it, but they issues the permit. i don't care.  
i imagine what would happen if we did what my brother says, just erase the entire country and start over. i start thinking about who i would select to save. taxipapi, tanya my tennis partner, she really brings out the best in my game. filiberto and marie! and ok, my driver, serge. he is a nice guy. even though, yeah, ok, he uses our project vehicles as his personal taxi on weekends, but on the scale of things, where is the line between wrong and right...?

Saturday, May 31, 2014

incorruptible police

so at every intersection in kinshasa you have a little platform where a police officer stands directing traffic. it's usually all gnarled and dented from where all the drivers smashed into it. whenever there's a nice fancy car the police dude will make it stop so his buddies can mooch cash from the drivers. at least this was the case was until recently. it seems a local university has come up with an "incorruptible policeman." it's a hilarious 8 foot tall metal robot straight out of Futurama, with a solar panel on its head and green and red blinking lights on its chest. 

the completely mobile bendy arms stretch out in the direction required to stop traffic. it's absolutely amazing, and what is even crazier, drivers actually obey the robot! i couldn't make this shit up if i tried!

Friday, May 30, 2014

it's been 7 years, Fally!

it's been 7 years since i've been coming to kinshasa, believe it or not. how far we have come. 
a few days before my flight i received a delightful email from air france explaining that they will no longer accept luggage with "rudimentary packing." it destroys their machines or something. so, no more coolers wrapped in rope, no more garbage bags tied with duct tape, only actual luggage, people! 
because, the flight to congo never ceases to be thrilling. absolutely no respect for queueing, it's push your way one board and fight for a seat, any seat. i carefully selected an open middle 4 seat area at checkin to be my bed, and guarded them like a cougar to her cubs. anyone who sat down near me, i would ask to see their boarding pass and send them along. sorry row 47 is in the back, move on sister.
the planes we get are always the oldest, crappiest. with the pixelated discolored movie screens that come down from the ceiling, where everyone's face is purple, the old school fabric. the cabin crew must be the rejects, the stewardesses who probably wore unapproved panty house on the paris-milan and their demerits relegated them to kinshasa. you can see it on their angry faces. 

the stocky guy next to me is talking loudly into his samsung- long after take off - about the outrageous luggage surcharge he had to pay. nevertheless, he boarded with 3 suitcases, a big plastic bag and once the temperature goes from freezing to slightly bearable he proceeds to remove his blazer blazerS. yes, all 5 of them. he peels them off, one by one and folds them delicately and places them in the overhead bin like he's moving in to a hotel room. another hour into the flight, he pokes me awake. i come to, remove my headphones and he asks "we're flying to kinshasa, right?"
it's always better to visit the bathroom early on, because after a while, the plane looks like it has flipped upside down or something. the place is trashed. i swear, when they repeat that smoking is not allowed (who smokes on planes anymore?) they are talking to the people on Air France flight 888. when was the last time you saw people hanging out in the aisles and talking and drinking? it all happens here.
so yes, there is a mob outside the bathroom. so much for the not convening in open areas, right? there are 15 guys, just hanging out, laughing, drinking beer and mini whiskey bottles, a regular old party. i barge through, excuse me, gotta pee! and then i'm like, wait a minute, i know that guy, it's fally ipupa.  the legendary fally! i had my picture taken with him at the memling in 2007. and here he is. putting a hand on my boob. nice to see you again, fally! 

i arrive at my digs, marie's new house in Kinshasa, which has an awesome rooftop terrace with river view. there is mind numbing noise of construction right in front, a house that will eventually block the view. who's house is it? 
Fally! ah that jerk...