Monday, December 3, 2007


ok you were all waiting for can stop reading now if you are expecting bonobos, there were alas no bonobos. but it was still awesome!!
we flew to malebo, a 50 minute cessna ride. the airport we were flying out of was the 'domestic' airport. it resembles more of a dusty open air market with luggage everywhere. there's no check-in kiosques, or anything like that, security consists of guys with guns and mean looks on their faces, but there are guys with huge buckets on their heads, selling peanuts, so, still very airport-like.
we were able to flash our cred and drive right up to the plane hangar. rod, from ohio was our pilot for this plane chartered by some missionary aviation company. he weighed us with his own special scale (with our bags). there were ten rickety seats and harness style seat belts. we each got a window view to an overgrown field of decrepit old planes and guys with machetes 'mowing' the lawn amid cattle egrets. he showed us the "sic-sak" and how to use it, and gently explained the safety features of the airplane, referring to the card in our seat back pocket. my seatback pocket had a pamphlet: "12 ways to be closer to god," none of which referred to the plane, but i thought might still be useful in case of accident. we were shown the first aid kit, what to do "if we go down" and it's good to know there's some food and water in the back just in case we need to wait to be rescued, lost-style.
after the pre-flight checks rod turns around and asks if we minds if he prays. hell no, rod! i don't mind! anything you can do, rod that will make this thing take off and land safely is fine by me. the only thing holding us aloft will be that small rusty propeller?? so he starts his prayer...

thank you baby jesus for this functional airplane - i sure hope so!
thank you for the good weather - looks good to me too
thank you for the chance to fly today - um, ok sure
what about being thankful that our pilot has his license and the experience to fly this thing? he's doing a lot of double checking, looking at the wings and stuff.
so we take off from this potholed mess of a runway, barely make it over the fish market and then soar above huts on stilts on little islands amidst river and barges, villages cleared in the forest. i notice all these long rectangular cleared fields amid the savanna and forest. so odd! why not square? wouldn't that be more efficient? then we landed on one. a grass runway is actually pretty nice and soft. and this one was well mowed to boot.
we put our stuff down at the lac tumba camp, still under construction, runs on a loud generator but has 4 bedrooms to house VIP guests, and tents and grass huts for the rest. the cook from my birthday was there and she recognized me shook my hand and hugged me and showed me her bucket of fish heads. she sometimes wears an apron it has "grandpa" written on it.

so i was hoping to sleep outside in one of the tents. alas, i would be put in a room with the ladies...which ended up being tents in a room so i got the best of both worlds.
we then set out for the bonobos. it was a bumpy hour-long ride down a dirt road with deep muddy holes and river crossings and rickety bridges. it started to rain. we were told the bonobos don't like the rain, they come down from their nests in the trees and go far far away to where we could not reach them within a day's hike. we would still do everything right, just in case, and tried our chances.
we went to the Boutu village welcome area and waited 2 hours for all the area chiefs to arrive.
we were seated in this hut thing, as villagers came from the woods, the fields, everywhere and just sat around the hut and stared at us, totally silent, like WE were the bonobos. when the the chiefs showed (we sent the truck to get some of the slower ones), they each came and looked at us, slowly one by one, right in the eyes. then they were all lined up in a row, all dressed in bright red, wearing various hats. one guy had a knit winter hat with a pompom, hee. my favorite was the guy with the home made sword and metal gear-like thing around his neck. i think it might be a tractor part.
when we were being entertained with the bonobo song or introduced (bruce babbit had to make a speech) we were seated in these brand new plastic chairs and weren't allowed to get up until permission was given. the press was there (they were really annoying actually), as they had come with us to follow the babbits. they got their cameras out and the chiefs started to make these ridiculous baywatch style poses, posturing, as if they had a busom like pamela anderson.
one of the scientists who runs the community bonobo project, a Congolese guy, introduced us, one by one, in ngala. it was incomprehensible jibber-jabber until you would hear 'USA' or 'basketball' or 'Arizona', and then everyone would put their hands up (when you wave hi, you use both hands, like a surrender) and then clap and cheer. and so we went down the line.
blah blah blah john blah, clap.
blah blah richard, blah blah blah, clap.

then it was my turn, it was blah blah satellites blah blah blah maps blah blah blah and everyone was all oooooh! wooooo! and for some reason when i stood up, the musician who i had been nodding my head to earlier, smiling at his beat-up guitar did a little riff for me and everyone was all woooooh! yyyyeah! rrrrrooooooowwww! my colleagues turned around, perplexed, "how did you get so famous?" shurg, dunno.
then we went down the receiving line, like at a wedding. only this wedding had about 300 people in it by now and everyone was pushing, shoving. so you would shake their hand, they would try to say something, proudly show their baby, point to my nose ring, whatever. then they wanted their picture taken. i have never seen people so eager to be in a picture - so the opposite of kinshasa! here, they were fighting, pushing, putting their babies in my face, tapping me and pointing to their face, just to have the camera click and be able to see it afterwards for about 2 seconds. they rarely smiled, they would just stand, stoic so i was all come on guys! yah baby yeah! love the lens! stick your tongue out!
and they took my picture too! a bunch of them had cameras, some old point and shoots, some brand new, digital. i still wonder. how do they download the pictures? charge the camera? do they have email? there's no electricity or laptops or a cyber cafe for at least 300 miles....then again, i doubt there's a photo lab, either. oh they would snap a shot of me, with one guy standing next to me (the women only posed with their babies), huge grin. then he would say something in ngala which meant "one more." and so we took one more. and then he would say "just one more" and so we would end up taking 5 or 6, not changing pose or anything. at one point i knelt down on the ground and said "picture with everyone!!!" and kids were jumping on me, crowding, screaming, it was an insane mob scene, and totally awesome.
so then there was a dance, they had these drums carved out of trees and a big metal drum, like a toxic waste thing. and they all started dancing and after a few seconds we were sick of sitting in those plastic chairs and hattie babbit led us to join in with the ladies. everyone went NUTS! screaming, cheering, jumping, everyone joined in. our little police escort guy was terrified of this madness. but it was so cool. i was still dancing, partying, taking pictures when i realized our group was all piled into the trucks, waiting for me. i hugged a few kids goodbye. one of the old guys repeated his one english phrase "good morning to you!" and the guy with the governor O'Malley shirt blew kisses. the kids ran after the car or rode bikes until we exited the home-made gate. the only thing i regret is not bringing my frisbee to leave there. it was stolen out of my bag on my way over here. i'm sure i could return in a year and they'd be my little african experts.
that night we drank palm wine from a nasty old 25-liter gasoline jug. it was a gift from the chiefs we could not refuse...we were a little scared at first, this is like russian roulette with your intestines. you first! no, you! it tasted just like toilet water and banana! EVERYONE got sick, even the congolese. we had a tasty meal though and i chatted with the belgians and got 3 hours of sleep before we decided to try to see the bonobos again at 4 am, and then it rained so we didn't and then we went for a hike through the thick jungle, did yoga, and when we heard the rrrrrrrreerrrrrr of rod's plane, it was back to the landing strip, time to go!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Bruce Babbit as in previous Secretary of the Interior? What is he doing there?