Monday, December 10, 2007

weekend part I

what a weekend. there was rain and power outages, as usual. but there was so much more than last week! on friday night i was invited to the french cultural center for chicken night. i had imagined a stuffy crowd inside some lame annex to the embassy or something, but not at all. it was a full thriving beer garden with $1 bottles and chicken and fries for $3. what a bargain. i was invited out to the nightclubs with some trendy french chicks, but would have had to fly solo to get i had to pass. i was a little bummed, but woke up early, had a nice egg sandwich and went to the office. my internet wasn't working so i was very productive. around noon, double-guy offered to take me to the market to buy fabric to get some clothing made.
we walked down the major avenue du 30 juin, something i could have never done alone. i got my picture taken in front of a giant Kabila statue, the ultimate proof i was in kinshasa.
then we hailed a sortof cab: a beat-up toyota with loud gospel blaring and a furry dashboard and in the back, leather seats with red and black yin yangs. the 'express' taxis as they are called are one step above the minivans with 35 people crammed in. you share only with as many as there are seats. where you go is majority rules. so the guy who wants to make a big detour to pick up his girlfriend, well he gets yelled at by everyone in the car until he finally gets out. at one point there was a big traffic jam and everyone was yelling at the driver to go around, kinshasa style, on the sidewalk to get ahead 2, maybe 3 car lengths. these people got out and walked, and some more hopped in and then you have to argue your route all over again. thankfully double-guy was doing the arguing, i was sweating a river, my thigh stuck to some old lady.
we got out near the port, where the boats come in from brazzaville. what a mess. for some reason, double-guy REALLY wanted me to see the port, "you cannot leave kinshasa until you see the port!" it's full of aggressive police, military, and people in wheelchairs (i found out they travel free from kinshasa to brazzaville because of their condition and thus play the role of exclusive smugglers). there were people screaming 'mondele!' and total utter madness. i am THE only white person here. every police officer starts asking me for my passport and i'm getting nervous. this is insane. we are essentially going into some intra-border zone and i really don't want to end up in jail or have to pay a huge bribe. double-guy is very persistent and finally we end up paying a few bucks to some border guy and we're inside this compound of chaos. there are buses nearly running me over, carts, trucks, dogs, maimed people, garbage. i saw the oldest, dirtiest, most digusting diesel train i have seen. people were all running around it, cheering, almost like they were pushing it. i'm actually sortof happy i'm getting to see this. people are yelling at me everywhere and all i hear is blah blah blah mondele blah blah. sometimes double-guy gets mad and yells back, sometimes he smirks and waves them off. when that happens i ask him to translate. he won't. he sortof giggles and says you don't want to know. i find out later it's something along the lines of "tonight, you better do her CONGO-style" or something terribly classy like that.
we go through some more border stuff where they're interrogating people, opening bags. there are a lot of guns. finally we see the river. the "hi-speed" boats that cross the river, i find out are these old patched up 12 foot whalers with 50 hp engines. the waves in the river are HUGE with crazy fast rapids and less than a mile away, another country. we talk to a border guy that double-guy knows and he tells me that when it's real windy, they have to stop traffic, but he's proud to say they haven't had an accident in several years! no kidding.

i'm sortof relieved to exit the port area and then we're buying fabric. we stop at one stand that double-guy knows and this immediately puts all the competing stands into this huge argument over who gets to sell me fabric. congolese people certainly can YELL. so they're all screaming and double-guy is all "take your time..." but taking my time hurts my eardrums. the fabric is set up in rolls and stacked like a log cabin. the fabric i want is always at the bottom of the stack, and so the woman has to unstack everything and then she unrolls each one and says, are you sure you don't want this one? showing me this 80s neon colored batik vomit. no...i want the peacock print at the bottom.
then it starts to rain. major rain. i'm up to my ankles in mud. why did i wear these flip flops? every flip sends mud up my nose. every flop, a streak of dirt up my back. we take refuge at the artisan market. here's where i want to do some xmas shopping...i'm soaking wet, thirsty, would love just a few minutes of silence.. madame! madame! over here! here! look at me! the insanity begins again. why is that the guys who sell huge statues of dudes with weirdly proportioned genitalia are always the most persistent and annoying? like i'm going to bring this 8 foot tall phallus home in my suitcase? or the 2 very pointy antlers on this large rack? or this 25 pound malakite egg? i see a leopard skin...and a baby leopard skin. $400 for the adult, half for the baby. the fur is really soft. there are still claws and eyelids. sigh.
i find the rug things i want to bring back and this takes over an hour of haggling. bargaining with congolians is just like driving with them. they are extremely strong headed - when they're on the road, it's "i want to go here and i'm going to go and you're not going to stop me." left turns are not for the weak - you just go, cutting off oncoming traffic (there are no traffic lights) and you must be strong and confident so that others will stop and let you through (they have to, they don't want to ruin their mercedes) otherwise you get stuck in the middle of all these different lanes and people have no respect for you. it's not uncommon to be going full speed, head-on towards someone else who is driving in the wrong lane to get around something. it's a game of chicken and eventually, someone HAS to give in. only one person needs to compromise, really. and so it's just like bargaining. and at the market, well, i was the one who was more often chicken. bargaining just isn't in my blood. double-guy had it down, pretending to walk away, calling them liars, trading one thing for another. but in the end, i really didn't care if i had to pay $12 instead of $11, i figure the seller could use that extra money more than me, but i guess it's a pride thing. they're also REALLY good at ripping you off. i wanted this one rug thing, but it was 15 feet long. do you have one shorter? so they cut it. they told me they were going to sew it, but they didn't, they just cut it all crooked with frayed edges and charged me the same price, saying i was paying to rent the scissors. or they would be all, oh, you're missing 500 francs, when you're not.
we found an old renault 4 to bring us back to the office, reminding me of traveling with my grandma. the seats had a broken recliner thing so if you leaned back you would fly backwards and be lying down and hit the knees of the person behind you and get yelled at. so you had to lean forward. it was very uncomfortable. there was more yelling because someone gave a really old smelly bill to the driver and he didn't want it, nor did he want to make change for american money so he just sat there and yelled until i paid the guy's fare to be on with it already.

when i got back i was just about the grossest, stinkiest and dirtiest i had ever been and when i got back to the hotel there was, of course, no power and no hot or clean water. whenever you ask when the power will come back on they say "they are putting fuel in the generator" which actually means the guy who's going to go get the fuel is now slowly walking to his truck and will be making the 3 hour round trip drive to wherever they get the gas from. no one has ever, ever even imagined the thought of having extra fuel on hand at any time of the day. that would be preposterous! some people built a trench in the road to the hotel for some reason and never bothered to fill it in, so there's a 5 foot wide and 8 foot deep chasm in the road, which i have had to jump over to go to work. they finally figure out that the truck needs to find a way to go over this they have to put together a makeshift bridge, which of course breaks immediately. you see how it is.
so i bathed in a trickle of brown in the dark.
that night for dinner, christian and i went to an indian place "the taj" that i had seen at the top of a building when i was downtown. i figured it would have a cool view. christian was very nervous at first because no one had heard of this place. we couldn't find the entrance until finally we saw a congolese guy asleep in a chair, he was wearing a torn-up old british empire doorman-like uniform. he took us to a really scary elevator. it was a relief (foodwide) to see an indian family join us, tho it was a little crammed. their little boy counted everyone inside, practicing his english:! then he points to the 9th floor button next to which is written "maximum load 6 persons." hehe. we get to the top and we appear to be in someone's apartment - it's like when you go to see a psychic and there are kids and cats, running around. here, there were indians everywhere, cheesy decor, faceted mirrors on the wall. there was a teletubby video game in one room and finally we got to the terrace i had seen from below. it was shaped like a boat, with a mast, and had an awesome view of the city.
we have a seat near the edge and i go, hey, look, our hotel is over there, pointing to a neighborhood with trees and sparkling lights. christian says, are you sure? then the neighborhood goes completely black. oh, i'm sure.
we order from the incomprehensibly written menu. they call nan "canvas" and main dishes are "very major important entrees" and most of the descriptions are "try and tell!" they're out of everything but chicken (menus are pretty much useless anywhere here. you're better off just asking what they have). the congolese waiter corrects my indian pronunciation when i order, which is really weird. we get a bottle of cheap (quality, not price, it was more expensive than our meal) french wine and it tasted like it had been sitting in a windowsill for 12 years. the food was excellent, however.
the wine gave me a bit of a headache. one of the indian kids at the table next door started running all around the terrace and he had these shoes, where every time he made a step it made a squeaky toy noise, like something you'd give a dog. squeak! squeak! double-squeak! SQUEAK! we wanted to kill this child, and then the parents who put these shoes on his feet. i will apologize to everyone for the inappropriateness of the insults that were strewn in their general direction.
my assistant guys were supposed to call to take us clubbing but they didn't, proving they are just as flaky socially as professionally. but i wasn't too disappointed. then i wondered if i was too old for the nightclub scene....i didn't get to see any booty shaking on this trip, but you know what, everyone keeps telling me, i'll be back....

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