Thursday, November 29, 2007

it was bound to happen

well it was bound to happen...sooner or later one of these fancy dinners with the ambassador and bruce and hattie babbit (former secretary of the interior and number 2 at USAID, respectively) was going to get the best of me. this time, it was the duck gizzard salad, which didn't have any gizzard, only what would become stomach wrenching lettuce. thus i learn my lesson to stick to cooked vegetables. which here, mean french fries. sigh. haven't seen any roughage in day. so here i am in my pyjamas watching bad french tv while everyone else is out at the fish market. i did make a noble attempt to go out this morning to see the congo rapids, it might not have been the best idea to star in my own pepto bismol commercial in the outskirts of kin, but it was worth the sight. i have never seen such miserable muddy roads! at one point we were stuck behind a beer truck that must have lost about 4 crates. that's why they have guys in the back hanging out, making sure no more merchandise gets lots. it was nice to get a little bit out of the centre ville though. so since i'm not really feeling so hot right now here are some pictures. actually i am feeling pretty hot. the hotel AC is down, and you can't open the windows. i'm sticking to everything. yar. super muddy roads
foosball anyone?this is the view outside my hotel room. these people are outside literally 24 hours a day. it's a non-stop party.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

so now i have a phone

i made fun of my assistants pretty bad today about their phone usage and etiquette (see below). double-guy asked me if american phones use sim cards. sure they do. so he goes out the door and buys one off of some guy on the street for $1. it's the same guy who keeps me up ALL night by partying on the little square across the street. anyway, my students all loaded their pictures and numbers into my phone. they're psyched. and now i have a local phone number. i keep sending them text messages that say "you are total nerds" and they respond with, and i'm not joking, Visual Basic code. i'm now trying to download the most annoying ring tone available. any suggestions?

other funny thing that happened today, frank, a phD student who LOVES red (wears red shirts and pants) was helping me make a powerpoint presentation. he wanted EVERYTHING in red and orange. and green and purple, it looked like a japanese cartoon. i told him it doesn't look that great, we should stick with white and black. then he became very solemn. "i have a technical question...about michele. she's nice isn't she?" uh, sure yes she is. he asked me if she was fianced. i wasn't sure, so then he went up to her and tried to translate his feelings to her in english "i want to know how to gain your confidence. may i email you?"
"sorry, frank, i don't think i understand you"
"i want to know how i can get inside you."
"um, ok frank, i'm not sure what you're trying to say" and walks away. poor frank.

GIS team...assemble!

so i have an awesome GIS team. these are the young guys assigned to help me with the map making, updates, analyses. they're all guys, which is sortof off, i haven't seen a single local woman scientist here. anyway, they're a whole group of nerds, but they're young, funny, good vibes. so there's patrick, frank jean-paul and another with a double name: guy-guy, also known as double-guy. whenever i need them i say, "gis team - assemble!" and they do, and we laugh sheepishly, not wanting anyone to know we're nerds. they compare software extensions and utter double entendres about their memory sticks. they follow me with their laptops and today, i needed them to determine the area of a hexagon with an 8km side. they eagerly calculated away, my GIS team. it's not as easy as it seems, all those triangles! they all argued between themselves before presenting their result. they also argue about whose mercedes is nicer, whose hard drive has more capacity. so then the minister of the environment showed up, even though he had been fired the previous night. apparently Kabila decided to reduce the ministry from 60 to 32 ministers and our guy was one of them. it was noble for him to come. he looked like mohammed ali, had blue eyes and everyone stood when he entered and he gently bowed and let us sit down, like a king or something. then we sang the drc national anthem. it was awesome. it's all about nature and peace and love. and then i gave my talk in french, in front of 80 people and it went rather well. i could have done without the american guy who pestered me for 20 minutes "maybe i don't understand french, but pouvay voo muh deer communt vooz avay dayseeday day ooteeleezay set donnays la?" some snarky girl from my office told me afterwards "you have an accent, don't you, no wonder why i couldn't understand you." yeah, whatever, she can't even order a glass of wine. she says "un bateau de veenyuh, seel voo play" which is a boat of vines. idiot. everyone else loved it. the rest of the questions involved more guys giving their long-winded speeches about something, and then came lunch, the hotel conference room type of lunch. i arrived pretty late, having only a few seats to choose from - do i sit with all the belgians who just got off their overnight flight (and smelled like it)? or that one seat in the corner with the taxonomists (uh, boring)? i'm looking around, trying not to be seen searching for a seat with so many empty before me, when i hear, eh! aurelie! and one of those loud two fingers in the mouth whistles. over here! it's my GIS team, in the back! holding up 7 liter-bottles of primus beer, yesss! those are my guys. we stuck olives in frank's breast pocket when he wasn't looking and made jean-paul spit beer through his nose. what a great lunch. double-guy likes to take pictures of me with my own camera, which is funny, i never have pictures of myself, but now i have tons. so we had to work pretty late to get these maps done and ready to print. the large-scale printer unfortunately, is at the university, an hour away where patrick lives with his parents who are professors. we were in a big hurry to finish our maps because the university is on strike (they're so like the french down here) and it's a congolese style strike, which means military lockdown of the school and mandatory curfew. so if patrick gets home after 10:30 pm, he could go to jail, or get beat up, or both. or he can try to bribe a guard and spend the night at the lab. so i'm snapping my fingers, come on guys, the faster you work, the more beer you get...we were racing against the clock and patrick's mom was calling every 10 minutes. we gave him SO much shit for this. poor guy. then his computer crashed and we had to start all over. i finally sent him away with all he needed to make the prints, along with a 20 dollar bill for the bribe, which i am charging to my expenses as "printing fees." so after this 13 hour day, my last task was to get the door to the conference room closed. i go get the security guard to come lock the door. i'm starving, i'm tired, i haven't even stepped outside since yesterday, i'm holding a million things, i want to go. the security guard comes up the stairs and walks S O S L O W L Y towards the door of the conference room. he looks inside, he inspects some maps, he starts looking at his cuticles and i'm like buddy, please, can you lock the door? oh, i don't have the key. sigh, that's how it is.

cell phone etiquette!

i know exactly what africa needs. vibrating cell phones. it seems everyone has the loudest, most obnoxious ring tone ever, incapable of ever being silenced. i have not seen one person with a vibrating phone. it's a rule that they must all ring louder and wilder than a discoteque in Ibiza. the etiquette i've seen so far (and quite often, so i know this) for mobile phones goes like this - whether you are the moderator of a workshop session, or a photographer following the minister of environment around, this is how it goes:
set your phone to ring and blink and scream loud carnival music whenever you receive a call. if you're in a meeting or somewhere important, well, just pretend it's not yours. shrug, look around, check your watch, it's not my phone making all that racket! when the person stops calling, sigh relief. back to the meeting. oh, but don't worry, they will call again 2 seconds later. voicemail? what's that? now when your phone rings, rummage through your front pocket and react with surprise when you find your phone, like oh! it's a 20 dollar bill! the person calling you will invevitably be an unknown number. look at the number, think, do i know this person? should i answer? all the while your phone is doing a meringue in your hands, echoing off the walls. but you can't take it for long. why is this person calling me? who are they? i must answer. don't bother leaving the room, just answer it right there. it'll be someone you know, it's always someone you know. you gave them your number. but the connection will be bad. you will need to say hello? allo? allllloo? about 10 times before you can communicate. the network is probably down, tell them to call you back on your other phone, which is on another network in your other front pocket. this phone will now ring even louder than the first. this one might sing celine dion or be a loud mariachi band. let it riiiing! and then answer. at last: "allo! mon frere! comment ca va! i am in a meeting and cannot really talk right now..." but before you hang up, you must have a very inappropriate conversation, "how did that rectal exam go?" "someone told me your sister is sleeping around!" and so on. never, ever leave the room, no one can hear you, because in your world you are talking really really quietly, you are invisible!

now imagine this scenario happening about 20 times in a giant hotel conference room. this is our workshop.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

happy birthday to me.

so yeah, it was my 30th birthday. on a sunday. started off typical really, slept until there was a knock on a door...groggily answered to a hotel dude dropping my off my two bottles of beajoulais nouveau that i had accidentally left in my old hotel room, before the switch. so i say thanks, and gee, it's early, isn't it? it's 10:25 ma'am. crap! our driver had been waiting downstairs for 25 minutes to bring us to our meeting. a super quick shower and dress, putting on backwards underwear and racing out the door. at the meeting, had to run through my presentation, in french. got assailed on my lack of accents, (i thought my mother had proofread, ha!) other than that, typical african meeting where people stand up and recite dynamic long winded speeches about their childhood, their high hopes for africa that in the end have very little, if any, reference to the topic of interest. my favorites tho, are professor dudu, an old congolian environmental scientist missing a whole bunch of teeth, but has the most giant smile i have ever seen.his doctoral student has a super scraggly go-t and wears a t-shirt with the sequined words "i'm maniac" on it. then there's laurent, a round-faced burkinabe with thick glasses and the excellent long dress getup. he eats with his hands. samy, our leader wears some sweet old lady-style gold rimmed tinted glasses. so the rule is you're free to call anyone (man) older than you "papa." so everyone is papa this, papa that...everyone is my papa! after the meeting we were off to the big boss's house. it was a fun ride in the back of a pickup with all the locals and some camerounians. look, the white girl wants to ride with us! it was dusty, hot and rainy all at the same time. we talked about mosquitos and goats and passed by very similar trucks full of angry military guys with huuuge guns.
we went by Mapao's house - this crazy congolese rocker who re-invents himself quite frequently and changes his name more often than he releases albums- he's been known as papa one, papa noel, benedicte XVI, which he got a lot of flack for, so he changed his name to sarkozy. maybe that makes him more bad-ass? anyway, his house has a huge wall with gold M M on the gate, which is written in the mighty mouse font. funny.
so we get to our destination, a huge white square house guarded by high white walls that looked straight out of scarface. there was a huge white patio, pool out front and inside, endless near- empty rooms. it was about 10,000 square feet, not including the servant's quarters, where the cook, gardner, guard and pool boy live, the under-pool bunker and wine cellar - all rented for the same meager price i rent my place in DC. guess it pays to work down here! there was a huuuuge bbq with tons of fish heads, middles and tails. "something for everyone" it was called. i took a middle. there were the requisite gargantuan bottles of primus, skol (that's swedish for "cheers" btw) and other beer, wine, and of course, my beaujolais. we chit-chatted, took pictures, one of my GIS guys jumped in the pool and soaked everyone. it was a great mellow afternoon, the only time i've had to relax. then came the huuuuuge birthday cake. for me. some guys sang happy birthday in a local dialect and then translated: "may god add some more days to your life" only, at first i understood "may god add TWO more days to your life" and i said hey! that's not very nice! we got back in the evening, i had to work some more, and then it was off to the bar with the new visitors in town. i had a few pastis, and realized at 2am there were ice cubes in it! i had night mares about amoebas in my brain, but so far, no symptoms.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

cool things i saw today:

-a guy carrying some sort of engine on his head. anything on anyone's head is pretty neat.
-a huge billboard advertising (will someone please visit it and tell me what it is?)

-a monkey tied up outside a chinese restaurant. which, in the end isn't so cool. he started freaking out as i got closer. and how do i know i'm eating chicken?
-the super famous congolese rock star: faly
-my maps everywhere!

not so cool things i saw:
-everyone coming into the office on a saturday - there's nothing much to do apparently so people just work. ahem, i plan on changing that.
-germans in speedos at the pool
-the price of a pepsi MAX at my hotel: 4000 francs congolais. that's 8 bucks!
-my new hotel room's bathroom (there were two of us, one bed, one bathroom towel. i asked for a double room, which ended up being half the size and twice as nasty).
-the guy with backwards knees who shines shoes outside. he has flip flops on his hands and walks like a gorilla. not cool.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


i wanted to go back to the airport to pick with patrick to pick up some colleagues flying in - a chance to see the crazy airport road in the daylight, during friday rush hour. we went through a pretty shady hood full of drunks and card players to pick up moses. at one point, in the middle of all these patio tables we pass all these dressed up people sitting in seats facing a tent (like a huppa) decorated with white satin and flowers. oh, a wedding! i exclaim. patrick doesn't even look, says...uh, actually, that's a funeral. really?? so i take a closer look and yup, there's the socked feet of a corpse in a glass coffin. oh, i feel really bad. "ah, there's actually not much difference," he says, "it's a big party all the same." we pulled over and waited for moses, we stopped the engine and turned up some killer congolese reggae - the funeral wouldn't mind i guess. this immediately drew the attention of all the cassette tape vendors who crowded my window. moses suddenly busted in the back seat "j'ai du chevre!" which to me would usually mean "i have goat cheese!" but here it means marinated bbq'd goat, bones, tendons and all. he unfolded a paper bag and put it on the middle console (threw the empty pepsi can that was there out the window). taaaasty. so we drove off, took a shortcut by careening around a bus and through a dirt field and onto some sort of muddy by-pass. soon, other people figured out the shortcut too, and we were knocking rearview mirrors with trucks, buses with bullet holes in them and about 150 people crowded inside, with "securite et confort" written on the side...i saw a land rover side-ram a minibus and lose its bumper. kids were running out to pick up the pieces, patrick saw an opportunity to escape the potential running over of children and we swerved around everyone on the left - and discovered why no one was using this side of the street- we bumbled through a giant muddy pothole the precise size and volume of my brother's hot tub. we ambled out and the car started making weird noises. people were honking, yelling...there's no soon as i was able to open my window (there was a pedestrian crowd leering and smooshing their faces against the glass, including the guys who have giant bags of little bags of water on their heads, selling them through the bus windows) i noticed we had a flat tire. but not just a flat tire, a totally destroyed blown out tire. i imagine for a moment i am in iraq and i'm going to be dragged out of this car, but no. we pull over to a quiet side street next to, oddly a pile of old blown out tires. patrick goes to get the jack and the spare, i ask moses if he's going to help and he says no way, he's le chauffeur, i am the immigration official! yes, it turns out we pay moses a salary to get people through border control without problems. he's good at his job. moses also had some sweet pin stripe pants and a sparkling white shirt so i guess i didn't blame him for not helping. he chatted on one of his three cell phones, i overheard flight info and the description of my colleague (white, blonde, american passport) while i praised patrick for changing the tire faster than the guys in the paris-dakar. turns out we had ran over a huge key that just sliced the whole thing open. i wanted to take a picture of our crowning achievement when moses goes no no no no NO! and i quickly put away my camera before two military dudes and police officers from across the field come running over, guns pointed, sweating, screaming, shouting, the impression that i was going to be looking at the barrel of a rifle soon came over me so we quickly pretended like we weren't there, threw everything in the truck and sped away.
so, you can't take pictures in kinshasa. i read this somewhere and i see that it's quite true. for some reason, they just HATE cameras. like, really really REALLY hate them. like put you in jail for even trying to capture a moment. i found out some guy visiting tried to take a picture of a building once and had people block in his car, lay on his hood, until the police got in his front seat and hit him with the butt of a gun and dragged him to jail. so, no pictures. so glad i bought a new camera! the only ones i can safely take are inside. like the one of another patrick, my gis assistant, drinking what we call terrorist coca-cola, because everything on the can is written in arabic. i guess they import it from dubai or something. where's my nutritional information?!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

thanksgiving in kin

happy thanksgiving to me. i ate a fish stew in a banana leaf, along with 75 cl of Primus (like the band) beer.
so i made it to kinshasa! where to begin...i flew from washington on an overfull flight (middle seat! ugh) arrived in paris at the ridiculously early hour of 6 am. there were no open stores, no people, only vast benches and as i passed out in one, some clingy fat american couple who, out of the million available, empty, vacant! seats chose the one inches from my head to plop their sweatpantsed arses in and rant about the laziness of the french. sigh.
i boarded my flight to kinshasa and was seated in a row with a bunch of homies from philly with huge diamond stud earrings, gold chains and vulgar t-shirts who kept calling me "dawg." after their conversation about dropping beats intruded into my half-sleep, i figured they were into some sort of music. the plane took off and the coolest thing about this airbus was that there's a camera mounted on the front of the plane and you can watch live video of what's happening on your personal screen. once we took off, the view was switched to directly below the aircraft. me and my boy were transfixed. the only phrase that was uttered in the first 25 minutes of flying over paris and its
southern suburbs was "this is seriously blowing my shit right now." our trance was ended by the steward who advised us that there were plenty of seats in the back if we wanted to stretch out. dawg announced "hell yeah! to all my peoples who are jetlagged, to all those who haven't slept in 3 days, to all you sleepless niggas i be represENTIN'!" and found a nice four seater row to lay out in. he then whined that he forgot his plush neck pillow but some skinny punky english guy brought it to him immediately. i slept and dreamt, awoke to a coconut chicken and beaujolais nouveau.
i went back to my original seat to get my book when i found dawg #2 curled up in my seat. turns out he's famous.
as i precariously extricated my belongings from the seatback pocket some congolese guy across the aisle asks me if i know De La Soul. "uh, yeah, sure i do."
"you are travelling with them? to kinshasa?"
"that's the dude from De La Soul. and that guy over there, that's the other one."holy crap! so i go back to my 4 seater and ask my boy, are you all really De La Soul? He ro
lls his eyes and says, well, THOSE guys are, I'm the DJ from the Roots. holy crap! my favorite juke box go to song is the seed! awesome.
so we land in kinshasa some 4 hours later. i have to pee SO bad. we exit the plane, walk between all these UN aircraft and angry looking congolese police when i get my first public bathroom experience - typical, really. no seat, no toilet paper and diarhea smears on the walls and sink. awesome. i don't think i flushed, sorry.
i go through customs and get hassled by the red cross trying to decipher my yellow fever documents. i realize i'm in room with no clear exit. there's a stairway on one end that doesn't seem to go anywhere and on the other side, a thick wooden door with these opaque glass walls on which i see about 50 hands banging incessantly. there's a mob on the other side of this door. no one else is leaving the room. the roots and de la are being quarantined by the red cross. others are chatting, hugging. i'm the only one trying to leave this room. the wooden door is locked. i'm about to turn the key when a police officer starts yelling at me, you! this way! and he unlocks the door next to the door and pushes me through. there are people yelling, tugging, holding signs, asking me about my luggage one after another they are coming right in my face when in the back i see Moses, holding up a card with my name. he ushers me to the baggage claim which is total madness. it's about 1/45th the size of a normal baggage claim, so there's only 25 feet or so from which you can see and gather your bags. meanwhile, there are guys jumping all over the moving carpet, grabbing bags and perching them on this high inaccessible shelf. i figure these are the bags you have to pay to retrieve. i'm getting pushed, nudged. rain is dripping from the neon lights al lover me. moses is talking to his buddies and i'm trying to make sure no one is sticking their hands into my bag. thankfully my bag isn't selected for the perch. moses grabs the light, portable tube of maps and shouts "let's go!" leaving me to carry my 45 pound bag, my laptop, my duty free beaujolais nouveau (gift for tomorrow's bbq), and my carryon. i'm barely able to balance it all as as we get to the door moses says "it's raining, let us wait." so he goes back to talk to his friends and i'm warding off the constant crowd of beggars, scammers, whathaveyou. i'm sick of this, i tell moses i'm not afraid of rain, let's go. we then exit the main door and into mob #2. just like the mob you see on the simpsons, only instead of moe, you have armless guy. and instead of bumble bee man you have severely diseased little boy. kinda creepy. i manage to catch up with moses who is comfortably jogging and passes off my map tube to some other guy and this young boy becomes my personal umbrella man. he meticulously points out puddles and does not let one single drop of rain fall on any part of my body. he also does not offer to help me with any of my 4 bags. we traverse the parking lot, wade through lakes of dirty water, rivers of garbage, at one point i had to jump 3 feet over a calvert. umbrella man is trying to whisper in my ear. "eh! pas de drague toi!" shouts moses (no flirting!). i get to the WWF truck to be introduced to a smiling patrick. WELCOOOOOOOOOOME! he shouts. i ride shotgun, and there's a swarm of people following me, waiting for their pay. umbrella man asks for euros. no problem, here's two (that's worth 5 bucks ya know!). i give a fiver to one buy and moses goes, no, not him! HIM! and there's an ensuing fiasco over my money and i don't care i shut my door and patrick drives away. we drive through an apparent zombie land. there are people EVERYWHERE. barefoot ladies with giant mixing bowls on their heads in the middle of the streets, guys with random t-shirts that say "i'm a proud lady wildcat" with a picture of a field hockey stick and everything in between. there's a bashed up renault with only 3 wheels that drives half off the road. a broken down bus, a truck overloaded with bags of rice, a tractor trailer with no lights meandering between lanes. there are no street lights - well, there are street lights, they're just not on. there are no traffic lights, you just, go. there are eerie candle lit markets, bonfires, bars, patio tables, and umbrellas. there are people pushing cars, changing tires, flipping over sedans. i see a police officer pull a man out of a car and punch him in the face. there are stairs to nowhere - stairs that would be one of those pedestrian overpasses, though they're missing the overpass part. there are busted up billboards. potholes deeper than i am tall. this is crazy. no one honks, all the drivers are very vigilant and courteous. there's a minivan which looks like it has an endless supply of people. it keeps stopping and letting 3 or 4 people out. patrick tells me how they fit everyone. "where your feet are, there are three people, sometimes five. in the trunk, at least 8..."
we talk about thanksgiving and beaujolais nouveau, about how rain is a blessing and politics (he doesn't like bush or rumsfeld), and where patrick comes from - kinsangani which was pretty much empty since the war. he tells me that the streets are actually empty, there are way more when it's not raining - i can't imagine what this looks like. he puts on some great congolese music. he talks and drives, not seeming to care how often we can't see through the windshield. and then i'm here, at the memling. it's basically the level of a best western. most of the clientele is white, working for the UN. the menu at the restaurant has duck, lobster, foie gras. i ordered the one thing i didn't recognize : liboke. my waiter tells me it's delicious, and it is. the only thing cold that doens't come with dysentery ice cubes is primus beer. it comes in one size: huge. and this is what i am eating for thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

my name is racoon. i live on the third floor...

i live on the top floor of a rowhouse. there's an adorable little balcony that has a mess of plants, pumpkins, cute candleholders, whathaveyou. lately, my pumpkins have been munched. then my plants got all dug up. then i started hearing sounds in the walls. one morning i heard the quick repetitive thump of what would be something scratching. dang squirrels i thought...until i came home to a total mess - cat food everywhere, little paw prints on everything...and these two 'coons just ambled on over to shred my basil. my cat was trembling under a chair and these guys were just chillin'. even came closer for the photo.