Thursday, November 13, 2014

plum tarts.

throughout out childhood, my brother and i had the very sweet fortune to be shipped off every summer to our homeland in south central France. more precisely, in a tiny village of 20 souls called "La Salle Prunet," named after it's sickly looking twisted plum trees which line the tiny streets. it's about 5 hours from the nearest airport, or, a 9 hour gruelling drive from Paris in a Renault 4.


view from la rivière

Grandmother, or "Mamé" at the wheel, grandfather, or 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). we would always leave at the crack of dawn, mist and fog surrounding the car, which reeked already of old people, dog, motion sickness and the snack staple hard boiled eggs (we never, ever, ever ate at a rest stop), all of which would only get worse after our howling call: "c'est parti mon kiki!"
back then, and i'm talking 20 years ago, people, the highway was only built until about halfway, somewhere after Clermont-Ferrand and we had the choice to take the longer smoother route, or the shorter, but much more beautiful and 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 into the valley below, with a fabulous view of Les Cevennes and a breeze blowing fresh heather scent into my nostrils.
no car radio, no air conditioning, windows that never seemed to slide open enough, mamés quiet humming. she always had to use both hands to shift gears, pulling sharply on the black handle thing that came out of the dashboard to downshift into second gear, which we needed to make it onto the Causse, trucks and faster cars passing us angrily on these scary narrow roads.
the dog would bark wildly at anything resembling a cow and would scratch up my legs and spray drool all over. Mamé would smile into the rearview mirror, seeing a wild cloud of kids and dog hair, anticipating the wonderful two months ahead. it wasn't until someone had the bright idea to drug Chadel could we actually talk to eachother, and i could share delightfully grammatically incorrect phrases like "regarde le vache avec son queue!"
one year, in the village there was a boy with a wallet chain, doc martins and dark 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, punctuated by a ceremony by the river where my friend Brigitte and her guy counted down from three and the two couples kissed. it was totally gross. i was horrified. but still, he wanted to symbolize this union by trading something. i gave him 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), and 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, no harm done.     
july and august full of river swimming and biking and hiking and mountains and friends never lasted long enough, and when the doorbell rang in late august, around lunchtime, you knew it was the end. it was one of the village kids, standing in horror as Chadel growled angrily (he bit her one year and left a real nasty scar). It was Véronique, holding a bag of ripe 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, the tart making day was really her time to show off. we would go into town, to our great aunt's house to pick up this huge pie tray, what i remember as being larger than my wingspan, a low sided metal Thing with crinkly sides, always sticky and dusty from last year's use and would akwardly fit in 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 made out of dough.
three days before the event, most of the village would gather before the communal oven. every town in the region has one, a little stone building with a cast iron door head level above the ground, opening into a cavernous stone space. (it was also a secret hiding spot for some people to cache their cigarettes), 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, and drink, and talk.
somethin's cookin'
on the day of the fete mamé rolled out the dough with a mostly empty bottle of pastis as we halfed the plums. now here came the crucial moment: everyone else who makes plum tarts puts them open side facing down, so you have nice little half plum balls, like in every bakery and restaurant in the big town. this might look very nice, but according to mamé the people who did this were backwards classless yokels. it makes no sense, she would explain, 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 (descendents of Charlemagne and the Protestant Cavaliers of the Tour D'apcher!). we would parade our tart proudly through the street carefully with both arms on the way to the oven. past the little inn, handing it to the men to cook it and making sure it was nice and center and not on the edges where it cooks unevenly.  .
and she was right. the first year our pie was the only one with up facing plums, and you could pick up a piece and eat it with your hands and not have it drip through your paper plate. over the sounds of the Polka band i heard people commenting on it, in their southern accents. ehbe, c'est la tarte de madame volat, et les petits américains, ca! as they held a piece above their heads, noting how the underside was crisp and sturdy. over the years more and more pies would turn over their plums, i guess you can say we strarted a revolution.
mamé has long since passed away, the pie dish was probably tossed in the trash when they sold our great aunt's house, or maybe it's still rotting away in the grungy basement. but when i moved to berlin i received one of my brother's characteristic "i ordered this from french eBay" gifts, a nondescript brown package from some weird address i have never heard of. it was one of these brown metal pie dishes, with the low crinkled sides and the bottom part that comes out so it's real easy to put on a plate and serve.
last month i met a very charming man who invited me over for dinner, and 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... i brought over the dish, with some dough i quickly kneaded after work. sliced up some organic apples, covered them with simple cinnamon and sugar and made a lattice top with a geometry that would make cooker jules blush with pride. we ended up eating the pie for breakfast (nudge nudge, wink wink) and i left, forgetting the pie dish in the sink. in the week that followed, my impulsive, and self depracating humour went horribly wrong, and i managed to convince the guy i was a complete pyschopath. to the point where he won't even speak to me, and i am pretty sure he deletes my messages before even seeing them. 
so here i am, hoping he'll muster the effort to put it in the mail so i can make pies again, and certainly a plum pie next summer. while i can laugh it off as another funny dating disaster story that made everyone at the bar cry into their drinks, what i really long for is those simpler times, where things made sense. though i have nothing of his, (he has both my pie dish and my pride), i'd still be up for a humble trade at the end of the month, and to honor my heritage, plums always facing up.  
   

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 know....so...i 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 phD...no 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?"
no
"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?"
......si
pause...stare...narrow the eyes...
"passport!"
crap!

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 congolese...so 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 etc...it'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 CONFUSE
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 letter...you 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?

DIFFUSE
"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!

but WE LOSE
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%&%.

and THEY WIN
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:
off-
ice des
piste-
s et infr-
astruc-
tures
 
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!
http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/24/tech/robot-cops-rule-kinshasa/

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...

Friday, March 21, 2014

ca sticks good

so a lot of people say i have a slight canadian accent when i speak french. my mother will deny this to the bitter end, as she feels it may reflect on her ability to teach me the "mother tongue" but alas, i may have just picked it up in Quebec and it stuck. ca sticks. can't help it. after spending a lot of time in africa, i tend to pick up the africanized phrases you often hear around here. i have caught myself speaking like this, and might need to re-immerse myself in some pure french in france to cure my language ails: 

"Il faut gagner la solution" you have to find the solution...not win it. i read this in emails and job application letters all the time.

"Va suivre la télé!" you watch tv to see if they found the malaysian plane, you don't follow it.

"Je vous arrive en 10 min" i'm almost there...but, this is just bad grammar. 

"Tu m'as absenté hier!" what, you had malaria and absented me?

-Tu le connais depuis quand?
"bah, depuis depuis"
-quoi?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Real African pickup lines

If African men are committed to one single thing, it's hitting on white girls. Even if the white girls says she's married, not interested, sick with malaria...

Here are the highlights:

1. i was born with one leg but my uncle my doctor says i will always have boys. I'll make you many boys.
2. you are only sortof married, because you arent opening your heart to an african man
3. i am a boxer. your husband? KO
4. i will play drums for you every day. every day. 
5. being a soul mate is something you learn. being in love with a cameroonian is something you have to learn
6. you don't like alcoholics? i will drink water, wine and beer for you, no alcohol 
7. we can really get to know eachother through skype. i like to skype
8. love conquers distance. as long as you buy me a plane ticket, i am there.



Wednesday, March 19, 2014

2nd time malaria ain't so bad...

soooo i guess when you're immune system gets down, let's say after a sleepless night of saying goodbye to Yaoundé, the old Malaria parasites can creep back up on ya....but i am back. to health and to Internet. inshallah.

for my last friday in cameroon, my new friends couldn't just let me get to bed early to board my flight sober and well rested. instead, we had to make the rounds of the bars and do a proper goodbye to our haunts. a motley crew of coworkers and friends went back to the buncker, the scene of women's day debauchery where i apparently made a lot of promises. ...just like how my dad will invite you to thanksgiving after a few gin and tonics, i told maria the waitress i would come back and eat THE BIGGEST FISH YOU HAVE. and i did. and it was delicious. and i paid 6 bucks for it.

don't just choose the fish...feel the fish
we stopped by the route 66, the american bar across the street from my house where the owner, walter, who speaks a really weird non-accented english made us re-enact the previous thursday, when we were urged to challenge these poor deep pocketed koreans to a disgusting shot drinking contest. they lost, and they lost hard. pohw koweans. (thankfully on this night, no one threw their car keys in my face saying, "you know how to drive? you seem less drunk than me" and "we can't leave the car here" making me drive a very sllllow deliberately unsober 500m to our door, screaming look at my White Girl chauffeur and making it through the narrow gate, no damage!).
anyway, there was some pleasant outdoor pool playing in a leafy parking lot/garden/open toilet area, where i laid my best pickup lines (so, play pool in a parking lot often?) on an adorable belgian who replied: "we have met before. in kinshasa, we had lunch, you don't remember me." woops.

anyway, then came food finding mission, which took us to this crazy kindof meat market (not that kindof meat market) thing, where these guys have flattened chickens piled up like books next to an open fire. they are sweating, handling money and machetes and chopping. you get pile of meat with bones and toothpicks and onions on a metal plate. napkins cost extra. one guy has the most delicious beef chunk that he slices for you to try. this is the christian side, because apparently there is a muslim side, an entire are of steps where the guys with the long robes and hats come and set up their carpets, take off their shoes and do their morning prayers. i do pray that i don't miss my flight to libreville...
 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

international women's day hangover

so they really take this women's day thing seriously. and this year, it fell on a saturday. before i left the office on friday, i stopped in to say hi to a british intern, who is just about the closest person socially and age-ly to me at work. i asked her what she was doing over the weekend and she may have thought i was asking her out? her co-workers loudly shuffling papers awkwardly. 
she came over on saturday night in her own designed women's day dress. i didn't really like the pattern this year (orange and browns, with a woman hugging a cameroun outline) so i just wore a regular african dress. her boyfriend, as it turns out, is this brawny, tatooed, rather famous musician who has adoring fans and stuff. as it turns out, he is friends with the guy i am staying with, rizbo, who is also a rather famous musician. they have some 90s style african rap album. lots of neon. anyway, eric, the boyfriend of the british girl kelly, being the gentleman that he is, accompanies us to a terrasse bar/night club/restaurant/cabaret (they are serious about this part)/fish grill (also serious about this part). as he knows the owner and is somewhat of a celebrity he settles us into a table, which is unfortunately amid all these expats, and goes off to his own evening. the thing about women's day is you're supposed to be without your man. 
the expats are all saggy eyed drunk fat american mommies whom you know just from looking at them are peace corps volunteers who met cameroonians and never left. not our cup of tea. we nod gratiously and order a round of boosters: 1l bottle of whiskey and coke. excellent discovery. kelly turns out to be a hoot. she's an intern, which means she is surviving on 150$/month. i give her big ups for that and buy all our drinks. i mean, she is from a sailing, designer dog raising family and in yaoundé, saving up for a fridge. i'm very impressed. the american girls finally leave and kelly remarks how just about every american you meet abroad is whale-sized. it's really true. me, i'm french. 
so about 80% of the clientele are cameroonian women in their women's day print dresses, which, are just very unflattering mumus. i don't understand why they don't share the same sexy fashion sense as congolese. the waitresses are running around with giant plates of grilled fish and bananas. super friendly. ridiculously friendly. especially when i tip them (a very expat thing to do, whatever). i am invited to come back for a free beer tomorrow. and if i want to take a uniform i can wait tables. thanks, maria. 
i have never seen such positive energy, and kelly and i are remarking that what makes today especially wonderful is that no guys are obscenely hitting on us. the biggest perk of women's day, they leave you alone! no sooner said than some ghanains show up with their djembes and start uttering crap about being our soul mates. kelly casually mentions her boyfriend the famous musician, they back off. what about me? i play with my fake wedding ring, norwegian oil tycoon is home with the kids. they say that if we were single, they would have played their drums for us, but since we are married...well that's not right, mister. this is all women's day, not just the single ladies. so they set up their drums and start banging away, drowning out the crappy nightclub music. one guy has wrist maracas. and the dude with the ubiquitous creepy marionette shows up to dirty dance it everywhere. kelly is scared of these marionettes like people are of clowns and she is right. i am taking photos with my 10 year old blackberry and the creepy marionette head is always the only thing in focus. 
next thing we know, women are coming up to us, asking permission to dance to the beats...our permission? what for? go girl! and there's this insane dance off with some of the craziest african style dance i have seen. women in trances, giggly shaking and stuff. tables are moved, the dance floor has comed to us, it is like me and kelly are royalty being entertained by our court. more boosters please, and the waitress is dancing while serving us. 
i finally can't hold it in and need to go to the restroom (remember: singular). i love that the first thing you see upon entering this establishment is a pile of fly-infested whole fish of which huge sweaty women are smashing with cleavers. there are women everywhere, dancing, drinking, they are super friendly, they grab my hand or call me over, ask for my name and number "let's hang out and go the market!" i have 20 new bffs. in the bathroom i accidentally walk in on a woman (obvi no locks on the doors and she hasn't mastered the squat and hold the door stance). i am profusely apologizing over the stall wall and she's all, ain't no thang, it's our day, where are you sitting? oh, you're the ones who brought your entourage? uhh, not really, but apparently the whole club is talking about us. she comes out and dances with her jangly bracelets and earrings and she is complementing my hair, asking if it's real, how do i curl it. 
finally, it's past 2 am, the place starts to empty out, the drummer's hands are red and tired, and they pack up and leave. we should head back. kelly's boyfriend wanders in, all, oh, my phone was off baby, sorry i wasn't in touch and tells us about this djembe drum jam he was at, and we would have loved it. what did you girls do? eh not much, just drank a bunch of boosters, let's go home.  



Tuesday, March 11, 2014

the rather enjoyable fabric buying experience for once

so it's international women's day, and i don't have an international women's day dress! i'm such an idiot for leaving my march 8 congo dress at home. stupid, stupid. so i need to go to the market. probably best to not go alone, so olivier who is half my age and eager to impress says he'll take me. it's funny that he has no idea where to buy the fabric, but i do, so in reality i'm the one taking him. but anyway, we first have to meet in mokolo. i go to the street to catch a taxi and there are a bunch of women there, in the women's day garb. and it's true, this is probably the best day of the year to walk around as a women. everyone is all, joyeuse fete! and holding up 2 hands like it's your birthday, and all the mamans are super friendly and ask you where you dress is, and how drunk you are going to be tonight. this is our day. 
i've learned the practice of hailing a cab here. a dude in a busted up corolla slows down and you race to the window with everyone else, and scream where you want to go and a fare. so, makolo 200! and the guy will either imperceptibly nod, or lean on the horn, which means get the fuck in (and the rule is 2 people in the front passenger seat, 4 in the back) or he'll stare angrily ahead and basically drive over your feet. 
i still have the problem with the white person tax though, because the other day someone was all, bastos 100! and they get in, and i'm all, yes me too! bastos 100 and i go to open the door and he's already driven over my toenails. so it's kinda sad that it goes like: the other people: bastos 100!
they get in.
me: unenthusiastically bastos 400 :(
so we're standing there, we scream at a few but no dice. after a while, no more taxis are coming in our direction. the roads are all blocked for the big parade with the first lady. so a nice old lady who is standing next to me, who introduces herself as Lizbeth, is going to the same place, she wants to exchange the dress she already bought for her mother. i have no idea where i am going so i follow her and we walk. we cross a few police blockades and meander through the streets until we are in this crazy busy neighborhood and we grab a makolo 100. lizbeth is nice though, and she negotiates for the both of us. she even pays my way. but we get stuck in completely stalled traffic. we're sweating our faces off. the windows are rolled up, but the handle thing is missing, it's just a ring bolt nut thing and i'm clawing at it with my fingers and lizbeth goes, monsieur, can we open the window? and i think oh? electric windows? no, he hands over the opener: a long piece of metal that slides perfectly into the nut and you can open the window and you return it when you're done. nice. so no one is moving anywhere, except for the motorbikes who weave through the cars and i'm all, lizbeth, should we take a motorcycle? and she's all, not unless you want to die! and just then, a motorcycle comes out of nowhere and slams into a car, ejecting the 3 passengers and all the vegetable contents of their bags all over the hoods of 3 different vehicles. ok, let's not take a motorcycle. 
we pull up to a crazy market area with the typical goat heads and live chickens and stuff. one guy is trying to stuff 11 chickens into the trunk of a taxi. they are not tied up or anything, and each time he puts the last one in, one jumps out, and this goes on until he lowers, and lowers the trunk, holding the chickens in with one hand. as soon as they are all in, he slams the trunk closed but one makes a last ditch escape. decapitated. blood. gross.
olivier takes me to meet his grandfather, who lives in a part of the market where they sell giant aluminum pots with lids. it seems they them in cameroun, but then all these malians sit and file them all day with these huge long files. filing an aluminum pot sounds like 1000 nails on 1000 chalkboards. it's terrible. nonstop. all. day. long. i can't even listen to what the guy is saying, the hairs on my back are twitching. i need to get out of here. i'm sweaty, dizzy, completely hung over.



the guys who sell fabric are all muslims with with the little hats and the long dresses and chin beards. they have shady little stands where you can slowly, patiently look for what you want. they are actually helpful,  quite the change from chaotic shopping for fabric in kinshasa. and even though they are ripping me off, and stern hard bargainers, it's half the price of congo, too. i bought fabric with a chicken motif on it, in honor of my trunk trapped friends. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

get a dog

so a common problem in africa is that your night guard sleeps through what you actually need him awake for. the people i am staying with in yaoundé got a dog. not to attack the robbers, but to wake up the night guard so he can attack the robbers. 
the dog, titos, is a mutty african street dog mixed with insane. totally cute though. they got a trainer who was actually able to calm him down some, but he's pretty much nuts. also, he has a foot fetish. wherever you are, he just places his head on your feet. which is cute. until he bites them and jumps in your face.

he spends all day in his cage in the garage so he's pretty wound up when i come home. so i've decided to do him a favor and take him for walks. which is brilliant. africans are terrified of dogs. mortified. i exit the gate and it's like a nuclear bomb radius around me. everyone crosses the street or hides. this is fantastic! i can go anywhere! how did i never think of this. 
the easiest place to go though, is actually the dead end where the office is, which is like, 100m away, which is why i get no exercise while i am here. because when i walk to work people actually stop and pick me up and i'm all, no, really, i can walk, it's just over there and they go no, there are corpses in the gutter and i'm all, what is a corpse going to do, really...anyway, once you take titos out he gets pretty chill and you can actually let him off the leash, and he trots happily around. which i do, especially at the dead end, which is a dead end because some rich lebanese guy was sick of people driving in front of his morbidly huge mansion and so he built a wall. he literally just built a wall, so the street ends and that's it. the house is this really ugly tile and guilden arabian style crap, with a hedge/flower arrangement that seems to be depicting a lebanese flag or something. anyway, titos saw one of those tri-color iguanas go through there and went totally apeshit. disappeared into the hedges like a tasmanian devil. flower petals and leaves everywhere, just caddyshacking this landscaping. so i chase after him, titos! titos! and he runs back to the wwf office where he pees on literally...every....car...including the country director who sees me and screams, "is that your dog? he smells like garbage" titos does smell like garbage. like he rolled around in cadaver juice or something...so this guy doesn't know who i am because he was out sick when i made the rounds at the office...now i just have to lay low for 9 more days...    

Sunday, March 9, 2014

things that cannot be unseen: friday night in yaoundé

i taught a weeklong course in yaoundé as soon as friday noon hit, i could tell my students had the itch to just pack up and go drinking. i chatted with the 2 younger guys from the ministry of forests, asking them what one does on fridays in yaoundé. 
we drink! 
can i come along?
of course!
so i meet them a few hours later at some roadside half closed chicken rotisserie place near the university. you kinda just serve yourself from the big cooler. everyone drinks guiness in bottles, it's digusting. like some sort of rotten molasses beer or something. they do not know what guiness is. 
we're having a sortof intense bushmeat conversation and i'm getting devoured by a mosquito. one little fucker is just eating me alive, despite the tropical mega strength bug juice. as usual, no one else is prey just my sweet european blood. they don't believe there is a mosquito even after i show them the giant welts on my ankles. we decide to go somewhere else. 
to the standard central african night club recipe: music so loud it's distorted you can barely recognize it, fog, laser lights, giant bottles of beer and someone grilling chickens out front. having been to places like this before i know what the bathrooms are like. it's a bathROOM. i.e. one closet space with some urinals and busted up turlet, all together and jolly. i'm already regretting my second beer and scoping out where it could possibly be. out next to the dance floor is a door, 4 1/2 feet above the ground, that seems to have missed the staircase going up to it, a few more feet away. an african architect woopsie. the men kind of gymnastics their way up to the threshold whereas the women go up the stairs and make a leap of faith onto this little ledge to go in.
this guy oliver had already went and i asked him, are the women and men separate or is it a communal thing in there. and he's all don't worry, it's totally fine, the women's stall are separate. do you want me to go with you?
no it's ok, i can handle it. so i go up the stairs and everyone at our table is like, cheering me on, take the jump! and i make it and i push the door open and gaaaaaaahhhh! i was like in a detective tv show, the first person who opens the door to find the corpse of my husband or something, horrified eyes, covering my mouth with a hankerchief and turning away in tears. that was me, though it was infinitely worse. and it wasn't just the smell, it was this huge black penis almost in my face, something that belongs on a horse. yeah, separate bathrooms, there are stalls at the end but it's a parade of dongs and guys who are like, heeeeeyyy white girl! i need to get the hell out of here so i go back out the door, but there are all these people coming in the ledge is single file, so i shuffle along the ledge in the other direction, and i'm backed up against the wall, like a jumper on the 76th floor who needs to be talked down. olivier comes over and i'm screaming over the music "that is so not my definition of separate!" and he's like oh come on, and he carries me back to the door and shoves me back in there. i make my way to a piece of broken porcelain that can't even hold the liquid inside it, i pee and it all squirts out a crack on the side on my ankles. i would have been better in an alley. i come out and all my peeps from our table are there like, yaaaay! you made it! and we're having some sort of party in this disgusting place, where we celebrate midnight, which is now international women's day. yaaaaay.
after finally leave, it's a whole mess of taxis at this roundabout. and i'm such a white bitch because i really have to pee, and i want to get home like, now. and well, if you have enough money (3$) you can basically commandeer your own taxi, with the poor fools inside it. so i find one and i'm only half apologizing to the other passengers as i whip out my 2000 franc bill, which means my stop is first, and completely in the other direction and so they can either come along for the ride or try their luck elsewhere. sorry suckas.