Wednesday, December 12, 2007

don't forget to sign the breakfast sheet!

as i sit here on my last day, waiting for my program to finish running, expecting to pull an all-nighter to have a presentation for the office and our USAID funders, i have to say i'm going to miss this place.
most of all, my weird walks to work...following the little holes in the mud from the stiletto heels of all the prostitutes who leave my hotel early morning, up the path and to the road where the holes congregate and then disappear, taken away by a polluting van...past the UNHCR, past the barefoot guy with the huge wheelbarrow full of sticks and palm fronds, past the
private school where all the rich little lebanese boys get dropped off, across from the unicef signs advocating girls in schools.i'll miss my low-quality hotel, the blatant disdain of the waitstaff who have perfected the eyebrow response to any request, my little voracious birds, the cat i've been fattening: minouche. i'll miss it when papa pierre comes running after me when i leave, catching up with me halfway to the office out of breath, sweaty, "maman aurelie! you didn't sign the breakfast sheet!" oh the breakfast sheet. it's the first thing i say to the other guests in the morning - DID YOU SIGN THE BREAKFAST SHEET????!
the breakfast sheet is over by the clock: one of those chinese calendar things with a lit up photo of an autumnal waterfall landscape that cycles through the neon color spectrum...from cyan to fuschia to orange to yellow and back to cyan. the clock resets itself after every power outage, so it's never any later than 2am on new year's day, 1900. the breakfast sheet is professionally printed for every day with the name and logo of the hotel, the date, an impressive task. there are three columns: name, room number and signature. everyone who eats breakfast must sign the breakfast sheet. apparently, this is more important that say, putting fuel in the generator, cleaning the pool, making sure there that people have towels and toilet paper, or re-stocking drinks (i have personally wiped out their whiskey, cointreau, tonic, sprite and soda in that order. all that is left is coke and beer which come from an endless supply). as for the breakfast sheet, they know my room number, they know by name, but they will not forge my signature.
sometimes, like the day i didn't sign the sheet, the sheet isn't there, and that's because papa pierre has taken it, running after everyone to sign it. i would also like to add that the day i didn't sign the sheet was the day there was no breakfast. a term to learn here is "y'a pas" - there's none. tuesday was just a day without breakfast. there was no bread, no cheese, no mystery sausage, no stinky papaya, no cold omelet, no instant coffee, no bright pink juice, no hot brown water, nothing. you just don't eat breakfast today. so i had figured i wouldn't need to sign the sheet right? i found a tea packet and some jam and went to work and was buying
one of those long breads from the ladies with the bread on their head, and they cut it open and put some sort of oily peanut butter in it. they charged me double because of the color of my skin, but it was still less than $1. it was delicious. and that's when papa pierre caught up with me, looking hungrily at my breakfast. don't worry, papa pierre, i won't ever forget to to sign the breakfast sheet!

anyone for tennis?

last night i was invited to play tennis with the woman i'm working with, lisa. i borrowed a racket and some shoes and headed to this fancy country club thing in the center of town. there's an olympic size pool, a nice restaurant, a fancy weight room and four clay tennis courts. well, they're more like dirt, but still, pretty nice. the court we played on was all the way in the back, we walked down little alleys and pet the stray cats to reach the court, which, oddly enough backs up to the 36-15. hey, there's christian! on the other side there's a shipping container thing with people living in it. one guy was dressed in a security guard outfit with a bright neon tie, he was totally rooting for me. my backhand was kicking ass.
so on these courts you have ball boys, which is tiring actually, because you never get a break to go pick up the balls! our ball boy, abudaka was tall, skinny, barefoot and would slowly amble around, picking up balls, sometimes dribbling them with his feet into a bicycle kick, catching it and putting them into his plastic shopping bag. instead of walking around the net he would lower the top and go over it. sometimes we would keep playing and i would hope he lowered the net at the right time to let me win a point. i pegged him in the ribs a few times by accident and felt really bad. in the beginning we had him going all over the place, he could barely keep up - a tired ball boy is an indication that you suck, btw.
we had some brand new balls that lisa brought from the states, as you can't really find any here. abudaka's mix of balls range from really dead, to extremely dead and brown, and then every once in a while you get one of the freshies so it's an interesting mix.
the people next to us were loud, cursing. it was a lebanese guy playing against some sort of minister guy in an interminable third set. minister guy had an entourage of guys with towels and water. their ball boy was shouting the score and everything in between which was really annoying. first serve! fault! second serve! out! 45-15! after a while the guy's entourage started watching us, they are men, afterall and we are ladies in shorts. the entourage got yelled at. minister guy was super grumpy. whenever our ball went into his court he would take it and hit it over the fence. not nice, minister guy! one time, i picked up a ball and he was all, hey! that one's ours! that one is ours! really impatient. i looked to make sure that it wasn't one of our penn 4s, but it was definitely theirs, the brand was written in arabic. i should have kept it.
abudaka kept score for us too, though we asked him to not shout every play. i also asked him to say the score quiet when i was losing, but loud when i was winning, though lisa did the same thing so it was useless. i also tried to bribe abudaka to let me win the set, but he was too honest. our hour was over right before the rains came. we tipped abudaka a few bucks and went off to grab some well-deserved beer. i asked abudaka if he was busy next labor day for the annual tennis tournament. he wasn't sure. maybe he can be my caddy, if you can have caddies in tennis?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

who ordered the caterpillars?

i was very hungry at lunch yesterday and asked my assistants to bring me back to the hidden place with the rice and beans. we walk over there and this time, i got to go around the back of the house to order. it's like a national geographic scene: chickens, dogs, children and an old lady bent over, barefoot under a tarp held up by black burned sticks, cooking over an open fire with various pots everywhere. someone is washing dishes in a dirty washbasin while another woman is sweeping the cooking area with a home-made broom of tied sticks. on the table there are a bunch of dented aluminum pots. you lift up the lid and make your choice. i got the rice, beans and plantains - the first vegetarian meal i've had since i've been here, which got a roll of the eyes out of the server.
a guy showed up with a creepy homemade marionette - it had a doll head, a big booty in some baby sweat pants and flip flops for hands. he sang and made it
do a really dirty dance, grabbing it's crotch and grinding on the floor, which i presume is what happens in the nightclubs.
inside a really dark tiny cement room with a sewing machine is my new tailor. he's making me some killer button up shirts! with snaps! and a dress. for only $3. here come the christmas presents! we go sit down under another tarp, shoo away the flies and dig into our food. a few others from the office show up and have a seat and someone orders a steaming hot plate of.....CATERPILLARS!!! which are in season... everyone is all ooooooh yummy! and dig in. they're hard to pick up with a fork so a bunch fall on the ground and get eaten by a dog. they were various colors and shapes, you could see their heads and tails and feet, no hairs. i felt too tacky taking a picture and besides, they were eaten in about a minute. they saved one for me. but i just couldn't do it. everyone was sucking their fingers, yum! but for some reason i could only shudder. i thought of being on fear factor, and someone offering me a million bucks...still couldn't do it. i tried closing my eyes, imagining eating a piece of bread, couldn't do it. finally, i downed a glass of beer took a deep breath and when do one was looking grabbed it quickly with my fingers and put it in my mouth closed my eyes really hard and tried to think happy thoughts happy thoughts and finally swallowed it half chewed. it was crunchy with goo on the inside. it had an unexpected taste. like, lemony bitter eggplant. totally gross.

typical african sign:

attention! it is well posted (and it is, trust me) on the door that this is the WOMEN'S bathroom. if you are a man, what are you doing in here then? to respect others is not so complicated...

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 home...so 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 thing...so 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: one...two...three...four...five...six...seven...eight...nine...ten...eleven! 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....

sssssunday: ssssssnakes and bonobos! (warning, really really cute monkeys)

so i got a great night's sleep on saturday night, only to be awoken by alain at 7am, wanting to charge his phone. i had already told him the day before that i left my laptop at the office. he was sad. i was still very sleepy, and now pissed that i was awake so early. for some reason i thought an appropriate revenge was to tell alain to go knock on room 57, christian can help you. i fell back asleep for a few hours and then went to breakfast. christian was on the patio, chainsmoking, on his 5th cup of coffee. he was PISSED. "some asshole knocked on my door at 7am this morning!" i couldn't hold my laughter but he didn't find it funny, AT ALL. i hoped the bonobos would cheer him up.patrick and jackie from the office, christian and i set out in a land cruiser from the office for our sunday expedition. we picked double-guy up in a shady neighborhood. we passed a market that had a few butcher stands: 4 pig's heads on a wooden table, with a guy shooing flies away with a newspaper. we decide to see the snake place, since we're nearby. someone had the street number, but none of the houses were labeled and people on the street didn't even know there was such a thing as a house number. so we all counted together from the previous intersection, hoping there weren't any gaps. finally we get to an unmarked door, this can't be it...but a guy opens up and says "want to see some snakes??" it's frank, our friendly snake-guy.
we park in the driveway of a private home of someone who is obviosly a snake fanatic and runs a snake zoo in his front yard. we ask pat
rick to keep the doors to the truck open in case we need to run away from snakes. i'm making snakes on a plane jokes and we see our first cobra in the bottom of a pit. wow snakepits actually exist! frank lowers a hook on a long handle and these things go nuts. attacking the hook, spitting, biting, hissing. he tells us how to recognize them in wild, what to do if they bite, and shows up some cool scars. we're more interested in frank than the snakes.
he talks about feeding them and we're all wide-eyed so he says well, the snakes aren't supposed to eat until monday, but for you...and so he brings a small lab rat and throws it in. the poor rat is terrified. christi
an walks away, can't handle it. the rat gets bit a few times, make a squeaky noise and one of the other cobras nabs it, takes it to the water and drowns it. he then holds it up, the rat twitches a few times and then he puts the entire thing down his throat. SO COOL.
then we see 8 more species of cobra and we start to get bored of c
obras so we check out the pythons. frank grabs 2 pythons with his hand and jackie runs away. he puts the head of the python in his mouth. this is more like a circus. then he puts the python around my neck. i freak out at first but then, it feels so neat and i don't want to let him go. this is greatest necklace i have ever had. i am loving this python. we see about 50 more snakes, including one that curls up in a ball and you can throw it around ad play with it like a hacky sack. there are some crocodiles and frank angers them with a broom and they attack the broom. they are broomivores! then there are vipers, including the famous gabon viper that looks like a pile of leaves. then we see the lab which has a whole bunch of frozen and preserved snakes, and we check out the cages of all the rats and guinea pigs and chickens who will be eaten some day. this place is rad. best $10 i have ever spent. then, it's off to see bonobos, finally! we go through some amazing neighborhoods with people everywhere. there are hills and mountains and in the distance you can see kinshasa. they tell me THIS is still kinshasa. kinshasa is HUGE. we go through a little village with a really muddy road and little kids with shovels everywhere, digging in the mud. i'm all, aw, they're fixing up the road, how nice. no, patrick says. they actually make it worse, hope you get stuck and then make you pay to have them push you out. we switch into 4x4 and rev up and swerve and slime through it. there's mud everywhere. the kids ask for money saying anyway, to help them "maintain the roads." we see lots of mango trees and decide to buy some on the way home.
we get to the bonobo place and i'm saying i BETTER see some bonobos. we walk in the hot sun for a good long w
hile and don't see any. i'm starting to lose hope when we hear these insane screams. there they are! patrick knows them all by name, he shouts, mankoto! takoto! and they all come out of the woods. this is a sanctuary where they find live bonobos in markets and rehabilitate them and try to bring them back in the wild. most can't go though, because they're way too used to humans as we quickly see. so they all come to the fence and look super cute and so i go close to take a picture and that's when they lunge for me and try to steal my camera or grab my hair. then they go nuts. patrick is trying to hi-five them...at first they're all cute and go for it, but then they try to smack his face. i dropped my hair clip and almost lost it when one swiped for it. then this old female shows up and starts picking up dirt and throwing it at me. it's really annoying, we're yelling at them, hey! that's not cool! cut it out! but it only makes them do it more. the dirt sticks to my skin, is inside my shirt and it's very itchy. it sort of smells like poo.
we go a little further and see some more. these guys are way cooler - there are young ones fighting over a mango and being adorable. there are others lying on their backs touching their weewees the way little boys do. one of the males starts posing for me and making kissy faces.
so cute! patrick comes over to see and kissyface goes nuts, screaming, aggressive - he's totally jealous! the two that were fighting over the mango start humping and i try to get a video. the one who was into me was sad at first, but is now licking another one's butt. bonobos are awesome.now we're hungry and so we go to a little restaurant on the river bank. we dip our feet in the rapids, order grilled goat. this is a wonderful sunday. on the way home we stop at a market to get jackie some mangoes. this market is a bustling affair of crazy vegetables and fruit stands. i get out to stretch my legs and double-guy points to a lady with some furry things on her table. BATS!only $1. i thought about buying one for christian to make amends...weinstead buy some crazy spiny green fruit i have never seen and drive on. fally is on the radio, we have the windows open. all the ladies are checking out patrick as he is driving this sweet truck with this sweet music and he's wearing his sweet usher-style glasses. ladies on the street are luvin it, blowing kisses, and we all make fun of patrick. there are endless bonobo conflict-solving and one-eyed snake jokes. my hands are sticky from this tasty weird fruit, and little kids are waving at me. as i said, greatest sunday ever.

ok, here's one more incredibly adorable bonobo picture:

Saturday, December 8, 2007

why i'm here

so everyone has been asking what i'm doing here, workwise and i should probably tell you before you think this is just a big weird funny vacation. the government of DRC asked for my organization's help in determining biologically important areas for conservation, to help increase the amount of park area from 10 to 15% of the entire country, which is like adding the state of virginia. now, we all know DRC parks to begin with aren't that great, but the real issue here is that the congo basin is the largest remaining forest in africa, and only second to the amazon in the world. but this is the 'green heart' of the continent, if not the hemisphere, and also a carbon sink which is a potential money-maker, not to mention tourism opportunities etc....and this is all under tremendous threat. there are a whole slew of legal and illegal industrial logging concessions - countries like china are knocking on the door with a suitcase of a few billion dollars waiting for a piece of the pie (i guess indonesia wasn't enough for them). it's pretty rare for a war-torn, under-developed country like DRC to want to suddenly invest in conservation, but everyone is doing it. Republic of Congo has added some parks, CAF says they want to go to 12% and now DRC wants in on the game. The DRC recently re-did their forest code, which had previously been written by the Belgians, and Kabila has taken this opportunity to freeze all new concessions and re-evaluate existing ones while this prioritization is completed. The prioritization though, covers the whole country, which gives a chance to set aside some unique savanna, mangrove and freshwater areas for protection too. there is a lot of interest in this process from the french, belgians and international NGO's, which is another good thing.
i pretty much did the whole spatial analysis - determining the most suitable areas for conservation (remote areas away from towns, mines, dams) that are in unique terrestrial and freshwater habitats. this involved a program called MARXAN which helps evaluate many spatial layers to find what is most unique in terms of habitat, while optimizing the conservation value. (everyone kept asking me who MARXAN is. is he your boyfriend?)
So with the ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) we hosted a workshop in kinshasa that gathered biological experts as well as indigenous and community groups to determine where the priorities lie and how to include local people in this process. my maps served as a base for the experts to add their knowledge to delineate important places in and around the existing parks, and to provide spatial data where little is known (most of the country). after sessions of drawing and re-drawing on maps, the results were digitized by me and my team and a set of final maps were created showing areas defined as highest, high and medium priority areas connected by corridors, and each place was assessed according to their unique species, persistence, threat etc...
i'm now polishing up these results and overlaying the existing concessions so we can now get the review and consultation process rolling, and ultimately determine which concessions need to be re-negotiated or moved. Bruce Babbit, on our board was very interested in this project and asked to join us, and he'll now be our ambassador to help the DRC government and others to pressure, negotiate with the concession owners (mostly french and belgian and african). this issue will also be presented to Nicholas Sarkozy when he visits, to work the french angle. so there's some political power on our side as well.
so that was the first part of the trip.
i was asked to stay on for 2 additional weeks to assist one of the congo basin forest partnership (CBFP) landscapes do some conservation planning. these landscapes are 14 defined areas that get funding from USAID and work in collaboration with other organizations various conservation and community projects throughout the entire basin, including DRC, Gabon, Camerounm CAF and Congo - the bonobo village we visited was in one of the landscapes in western DRC. the folks in the landscape around the Salonga National Park (largest rainforest park in africa) want a similar planning analysis as i did for the whole country, but at a much smaller scale and more specific to the threats there. and the threat in Salonga, sadly, is bushmeat hunting.
just seeing that word is eerie.
there are lots of people living in and around this park who depend on the forest for meat. there are no supermarkets, people! a lot of these are communities who don't farm or raise animals, it's just not their mojo, baby. so there's a lot of pressure on these forests and animals are disappearing and it eventually disrupts the forest (whose poop will spread seeds once all the ungulates are gone?). on the other side, there are mining and forest conecessions and when these areas are exploited, companies bring hundreds of more people (workers and their families) who ultimately rely on the forest. and then there are the military guys who get dropped off in the woods with kalishnakovs, never get paid, and just kill whatever they want. in the end, most see bushmeat as god's gift to the people, but it's quickly running out.
so i'm working on a different sort of analysis that tries to determine how much forest we need to support first and foremost the local people - this is making a big optimistic hope that we can address the military politically, and the mining and forest concessions by making the companies provide food, or hunting alternatives (livestock, agriculture) to their employees and their families. so we need a chunk of forest that will be strictly protected, to provide a source of animals, and designated hunting zones. but how much forest?
the general rule i found from local studies is that 1 square kilometer will suppport 1 adult human's protein needs for a year.
next, we need the population of the people in the area...which is harder than getting data on bonobos. the last census was in 1984, but since then there was a population boom, a war...we're looking at election data - they had about 100% turnout in the first democratic election...but what about the children? what are the demographics?

i'm also trying to map hunting threat - people often use logging roads to go deep into the forest, or paddle or wade along rivers. how far can you paddle up a river in a day? or sludge through a swamp forest? i'm trying to map all of this. if we know where and how many people there are, we can figure out how they likely move in the landscape. and they likely go to where the animals are...
so we need some species data. i modeled elephant habitat based on where we found dung, and bonobos based on their nesting sites. so there's a general idea of where somethings are.
finally, once we determine how much forest we need based on local population, we'll run MARXAN to determine the best place to protect forest - (this will be low threat, intact forest with high biodiversity). adjacent areas can then be hunting areas, like a buffer zone.
if there is not enough forest to support all these people, then there needs to be an alternative. and that will involve animal husbandry programs, perhaps some sort of agriculture, or hey, microfinance! so the last part will involve mapping areas suitable for these based on soil, access, away from intact forests etc...we can also determine how much agriculture is needed to support this many people, and identify accessible, non-essential forest or savanna lands suitable for planting manioc or something.
now, the past few days have been slow, we just got the base data and are still working on the population...this is a lot of work to finish in 4 days, with a bunch of slacker assistants! which is why i'm be putting in a full day on saturday. enjoy your weekends!

Friday, December 7, 2007

when it rains, it's brown


it's been raining for the past two days. it's a total mud pit. my little hawk friends (i found out they are kites!) are all pathetic and wet with clumpy feathers. i don't know why they don't go under a table or something. when it rains there are people everywhere, all over the streets, sidewalks. you'd think that they'd all be taking shelter somewhere but it's quite the opposite. and that's because when it rains, public transportation, or what little there is of it totally shuts down. they have no windshield wipers, well, no windshields really, no mud-capable tires etc...so everyone is in the street, a whole mob trying to hitch a ride. one car will slow down and pick up some people but 35 of them will try to get in. i saw these guys punch each other in the face to get in an old subaru, and i was told that that still, it was relatively tame. often it's a ginormous angry mob.
this morning my shower was cold, but also brown. the water in the sink was brown as well. sediment i guess. at breakfast, i poured hot water into my cup of tea and wondered....how do i know that water isn't the same as shower water? i filled an empty cup with hot, brown, water. then i recalled the electric kettle in my room, and savvy UN guy who steals instant coffee, sugar and cups to brew his own in his room. i have bottled water in my fridge. i conceal a teacup under my shirt and head back to my room. my kettle is brand new, never been used! i fill it and go to plug it in. the plug does not fit into any of the sockets in my room. this is a very strange three socketed plug that i have to this day, never seen. i get out my trusty 9 continent adapter but it doesn't fit into any of those holes either. this kettle must be from mars. no wonder it's never been used.
so i head to work without any tea, a warm brown shower and sticky hair. i get a text message that a driver is coming to get me. my ride shows up and splashes my toes with mud. UN guy says, oh, i thought you guys were supposed to SAVE the environment as he is inhaling diesel fumes. this is going to be a good day...
at work, my assistants are missing as usual. they disappear for hours at a time and i never know where they hide. when they're here, they're always on the phone, or writing text messages. worse is when they answer the phone right in the middle of my sentence with a boisterous "Ami!! comment ca va!" they take long lunches and come back all sweaty.
double-guy comes by and says "hey, maman sharpie (my new nickname) jack wants to see you....in his office." jack doesn't have an office. i look awkwardly at the woman leading the project, with whom i share both an office and these cat-herding responsibilities. she's on top of things, and constantly asking for progress and i feel pressured to speed things up. double-guy leads me outside and i'm all where are we going? have you seen jean-paul? where is everyone? and we go across the road and down this dirty muddy alley full of trash - one of those side streets i see all the time but should never go down - we jump over a calvert and he slides open a rusty metal door and we're in a courtyard. there's jean-paul and more than half the office, including all the drivers whom we have been looking for, sitting in plastic chairs under a ratty old tarp, picking fish bones from their teeth with toothpicks amid a bunch of liter-sized beers. there are dogs and kids and chickens and this young girl spooning beans into a bowl. (oh my god, vegetables?!!!).
then, it starts to pour. jack isn't even here, not sure what i am doing here, but it's raining hard, we can't leave without getting soaked and then everyone will know we were outside the compound. 20 minutes go by. i'm almost finished with my second beer. we're making plans to see the bonobos "settle their conflicts" this weekend, arguing about which nightclub to take me to on friday. it's been almost an hour. i have a meeting in 5 minutes. i'm kind of drunk. it's still raining really hard.
jean-paul starts flirting with a girl next to us who just showed up with her driver. he's totally working it, it's amazing. he calls her "maman jolie..." finally he goes, "bottoms up guys! i got us a ride!" we all down a full glass as the woman's driver, who was just about to dig into his foufou takes out his keys. we run to his car, an oxfam-quebec land rover. a minibus crammed with about 80 people in it nearly hits me, guy-guy grabs me out of the way in a knick of time. i had been standing still, staring at it because it was a beat-up french minibus with "tourisme aveyron" and a french phone number written on it. i was shaking my fist and saying
maudits aveyronnais!! i didn't pay for my beer and had nothing to tip our friendly driver as i didn't even have my wallet. then again, we were only across the street. but now i know why my assistants all bear the sarcastic nickname which you say when rolling your eyes "les merveilles."

36-15 code BABY!

tonight is ladies' night - a bunch of gals from the office going out for pizza. i know where we WON'T be going...
christian had his first day at work at the UN on monday. he came back and found me and gilles at our usual rendez vous spot near the pool. he wasn't as happy and smiley as usual. he collapses into his chair "this place is impossible." he had a 2 hour UN security briefing where they tell you all the bad stuff that happens to ex-pats here - the bricks through your car window, armed robbery, police impersonation and passport theft, basically all the stuff you need to know about to never want to leave your house. there's a curfew, i found out, for whiteys. oops. gilles meanwhile turns real pale. so glad to be leaving this place, he says. he hasn't been getting much sleep as the waitresses are still finding reasons to knock on his door late at night...christian ups his spirit by telling us about a nepalese guy he'll be working with. the guy had never left katmandu until he had been assigned to DRC. "just imagine a nepalese guy, here in kinshasa! imagine what a punch in the face it was for him to land here!"

it had sortof taken the wind out of our sails for going out on gilles' last night but i said come on guys, people DO go out here. we'll get a nice reliable taxi from the hotel, it'll be fun! i saw this place the other day downtown with a patio and lots of ex-pats and locals, music, police presence, we'll be fine. so we go the receptionist to call a taxi - the hotel cell phone is out of minutes (maybe she should stop chatting with her boyfriend all the time?), so we use my phone. as soon as i hang up this beat-up carolla wagon comes barreling down the driveway. with a sunroof, yea! we negotiate an almost non-whitey price with the driver and as soon as we get in he cranks up the music, starts chatting and drives about a million miles an hour, soaring through potholes. gilles head is being pounded into the roof. we pass a car with no windows, no doors, no bumpers and completely rusted out. unbelievably, the blinker still works - one little lonely lightbulb that lights sporadically to let us know of its intentions.
the taxi driver's name is "bah-bee" (baby?). his car REEKS of gasoline. i pray that christian, sitting up front does not light up another cigarette. gilles is securing his money belt for the third time. we get let out in front of the "36-15" the place i had recommended. we make jokes about the old mini-tel, france's first internet. tapez le 36-15 code BABY!
baby is real cool, he lets us pay later. a hummer drives up to the patio, all pimping out and checking out the scene. then some hip guys dressed like wannabe LA rappers roll up in a convertible peugot, music blaring. they pretend not to notice as the hard top goes down and folds into the trunk. what's up with this place?
we walk up to a table, gilles is already feeling better. this place is real nice. pizza looks good. you see? nothing to worry about. look at everyone, all the locals and foreigners, getting along. and then we scan the place and something is odd...there's only old white guys, and all the locals are these sexed up skinny congolese ladies with fake flowing wigs. the women are sitting on the men's laps and massaging their necks, and there's a group of wealthy lebanese sheik-like guys, and one has three ladies in his lap - hey wait a minute! prostitutes?!
christian finds this hilarious, gilles is back to being terrified. don't worry gilles, christian says, they won't come bother us, not with this cougar over here, pointing to me, making the requisite rrrreow (only instead of cougar, it's 'panther' in french). now that i'm 30 i guess that makes me a cougar, nice. but he's right. our waitress is friendly, the brick oven pizza is tasty (it has to be good, because if any lebanese mafioso guys got sick this place would be erased) and we have our own little conversation, and never get drawn into what is happening around us. except when the 3 guys from doctors without borders staying at our hotel leave with a little harem.
we treat ourselves to grand marnier for a digestif. i have been forbidden to drink vitell-o anymore - it's this super sweet fruit punch soda that likely has crack cocaine in it, makes me very hyper. i'm told crazy weird stuff comes babbling out of my mouth, christian and gilles like me better on water, beer or hard alcohol if possible.
christian and i start placing bets on when gilles camerounian airlines flight will actually leave for libreville. i'll pay for lunch tomorrow if his flight is put off until evening. christian says it could be days. gilles is silent, angry because all day people have been predicting the worst and all he wants is to be back home with his family. so we make him promise to buy dinner if we find him back at the hotel the next night. ask anyone here, they have a horror story about CamAir. christian says he once had a four DAY delay in yaounde. basically, they fly when they feel like it, africa-style. we laugh at how the last time gilles called to confirm his flight was 2 days ago. 2 days? you need to call now (i'm sure there's a 24 hour receptionist!) i ask our waitress, ever flown camair? "i once got stuck in Kigali for christmas AND new years because of those imbeciles! I am relieved to hear they finally went bankrupt last year." poor gilles. he didn't join us for breakfast or dinner the next day, but i bet that's because the chauffeur left him off at the airport instead of waiting until the plane took off. and moses was off-duty. well, good thing there are dudes who sell peanuts in the parking lot.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

quiz time! test your DRC money knowledge!

do you have what it takes to pay the bills in kinshasa?
think you can outsmart savvy street vendor?
find out now!

below is a picture of some money. the bills on the left are congolian francs (3 50 franc bills) and on the right, a new edition US $20. try to guess which one is more valuable. don't bother looking it up, $1 is 500 CF.

well you are wrong, it's the currency on the left, the 20 is useless. why? because dollar bills here must be PERFECT. sure, they'll give you a used 5er in change, but to accept a bill it has to be clean and new enough to wipe your ass with. AND have a series number newer than 2002, you old dollar bill carryers.
i took out money from the bank before i left and have some crispy 50s, but one of them has a microscopic tear in the upper left. i tried to buy a CD: no good. one of my $100 has a deep wrinkle and fold on the edge, and they wouldn't take it for my fancy dinner. seriously!
on the other hand, congolian francs as you can clearly see look like they've spent 50 years at the bottom of the river. they stink like dirty socks! they're covered in nassty. you can't tell what the number is in the top left. they've been taped, retaped, sometimes two different bills taped together, half upside down. or maybe missing almost a third. gilles the extremely germ-wary - more than an american soccer mom with her disenfectant wipes - says "don't touch it! wash your hands! you could get tetanus from that!"
i had thought i had read somewhere that in DRC, dollars are actually preferred to local currency, but still they only want bills in denominations of 20 or more. everything pretty much costs less than $5 so i feel like a total tool paying with a Ben Franklin for a $1 dollar sprite -but they love it. and then they give me back the small change that they don't like, so at the end of the day you end up with huge wads of useless singles. when you're lucky you'll get congolian francs and since there are no denominations larger than 500 ($1) everything requires a huge wad. no wonder why all the guys selling stuff in the streets have knuckles of cash!
people who live here talk about paying rent with a pillow case stuffed with money.
the cashier at my hotel gave me a black paper rag that resembled 200 francs that was just about to rip in half. i said, are you sure this is still good? flapping the little hanging chad. she says "when it rips, bring it back and i will staple it."

i don't eat grasshoppers

there are two other french guys i hang out with at my hotel - the french guy who gets hit on by the wait staff and christian from the UN who just arrived saturday. we'll have cocktails by the pool, talk about france, comment on the weirdness of being here. we're comfortable enough now to make fun of eachother, notably they mocking me for feeding/befriending random animals (just you wait until i go to the venemous snake place next weekend).
on sunday we finally ventured outside the hotel walls on foot. i walked in the middle, these two tall guys at either side. we made it to the end of the hotel driveway and securely scanned the empty horizon for anything of interest. a guy cooking some manioc, some dudes leaning against a wall and people pushing a car, all typical. across the street was this decrepit supermarket that appears to be open only sometimes. there's an overgrown parking lot with busted up cars and some funny beer ads on the walls "turbo king! pour l'homme d'affaires!" but if you go to the end of this vacant lot you happen upon a little restaurant in a cute garden with little huts housing plastic tables and chairs. it's called the Marquis de GB. there's a disgusting outhouse, a small soccer field, a nursery, and a sad grey parrot in a cage who tried to bite me. the service is interminably slow, but it lets us take our african time, around 2.5 hours for dinner. gilles always needs a receipt everywhere he goes, which has proven impossible so me and christian write them out, varying our handwriting, inventing the restaurant logo. the menu has an odd mix of local dishes, unique french stuff like frog's legs and greek food. i don't touch the salad (learned my lesson!), but the kebabs and fries are good - they are served hanging from a metal hook. they also have espresso, something you can't find anywhere else. we eat all our meals there, since the hotel food is iffy. the round trip walk is about 1/4 mile, the most i've walked since i've been here! we stroll very leisurely for this exact reason.

the other night we were walking back after dinner and there were some guys hanging around one of the lightposts, below a swarm of bats and moths. the guys were collecting these huge grasshoppers and stuffing them into jars. i look at the one of the jars closely, the grasshoppers with their gleaming eyes all smooshed up against this old jam jar. what for? i ask. to eat. grilled. tasty! bon appetit! thanks in advance! UN guy tells me how he's eaten huge caterpillars and moths in eastern DRC. a delicacy.
when we got back to the hotel for a nightcap i saw a bunch of grasshoppers drowning in the pool. they're huge, so gross. i don't think i could ever eat one. as i got closer the hawk-like birds that putter around (i found out they're called 'milan' in french, anyone know what that is?) were verrrry interested. i picked one out with a glass, spilled it on the ground and the birds pounced on it, grabbing it with their claws and ripping off the heads and slowly enjoying the rest of the body. edible for most, just not for me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

lingering freshness

my shower was very cold this morning, my walk to work very dusty. i have to say, i don't have much lingering freshness.

bon appetit!

this morning on my way to work i passed the police guards outside the UNHCR sitting on chairs and peeling the wings off the grasshoppers they caught last night. imagine a thick pile of bodies, and then a pile of wispy wings on a plate, like when my brother peels carrots or something. rip, pile. ripe, pile. so weird.

Monday, December 3, 2007

boNObos

ok you were all waiting for bonobos...you 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
amen.
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 well.so 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!

snakeguy

so there were a few wacky scientists here for our workshop. one of them was snakeguy, an expert from harvard who had never been to the congo, or africa for that matter, but is a snake fanatic and knows just about every species on the planet. snakeguy speaks no french and we were quite surprised he came.
snakeguy told us how he has been bitten 12 times by venemous snakes. someone says "wow, you must spend a lot of time in the jungle!" he replies, "no actually, most of the bites were in my house." snakeguy really wanted to bring home a Gabon Viper to add to this collection. it's this huge sausage-like snake that is about as thick as my thigh and 4 feet long and has the largest teeth of any snake on earth. after the conference he sets out from the hotel, alone, to find a gabon viper and somehow get the permits to bring it back to the US. out of the 250 random solicitors outside the hotel, what do ya know he immediately finds precisely someone outside who has one to sell! of course, that person doesn't really have a viper, they just want to steal snakeguy's camera and scam him out of 100 bucks and that's what they do. poor snakeguy. streetsense!

a poem

liquid poo, what would i do without you?
i sure wouldn't be in the loo,
every minute or two,
that's for true.

work the system

so my new hotel suuuucks. i mean, it has a cute side, a bunch of buildings around a pool with little statuettes of 5 of the 7 drarwves around it with their snow white, a life-size Lucky Luke statue, a unicorn and these 3 huge hawk-like birds that mill around like chickens (their wings have been clipped) and eat the leftovers straight from your plate with their claws and treacherous beaks. there's also a sleepy red kitten whom you would think is dead if it didn't change spots every few hours. there are some funny waitstaff, a group of ladies who lean against the bar and invite me to hang out and chit chat whenever i feel like it. lately, they've been knocking on the door of the other french guy from WWF staying here. they rap on his door in the middle of the night, he answers angry, moment of awkward silence, then..."i must have the wrong room!" heehee. if you try to call the front desk however, you get the cell phone of the receptionist, whether she is at work or not, so clearly, you can't get transferred to my room.
the room is full of voracious mosquitos who seem to spring up from the tile and will not die no matter how much you spray them (i'm counting on you, malarone rx!), there's no hot water, no shower curtain - just a tube from the ceiling, unstable power and a window into the kitchen and bar area so there's quite a lot of noise. i presume it's pretty unsafe to keep valuables anywhere, so until i can lock them at the office, i've worked out a little security system here for my laptop, which i'll need after hours and can't take out with me to the restaurant etc. i call it "the circle of trust."
the short young cleaning guy, alain, asked me timidly if i had a computer. no, i certainly do not, i lie. "i need to charge my cell phone" he says showing me a USB cable and his sad, dead nokia. he has the popular blackberry style iphone touch screen thing that just sucks battery life, syncs with a computer, and shows everyone how awesome he is. alain, like most people, lives in a quartier in kin where power is rare - so his social life, communication, his status now depends on me and the ability to charge his phone. i tell alain i will charge his phone for two hours. in return he will make sure no one goes near my room, or he doesn't get his phone back, simple as that. me holding his expensive phone is now enough for alain to do whatever i tell him. can you please buy me a calling card from the one-armed man across the street?
alain, being the cleaning guy has a key to my room anyway. but he cannot steal my computer because it is locked with a special cable to the bedside table which cannot fit out the window. if the mean concierge lady were to see alain taking a bedside table away through the front door you'd be sure he would lose his precious job. there are now two things alain cannot lose: his job and his phone. a job here is survival, (and so is his phone). i have also told him there is GPS tracking on the computer and if he steals it, the belgian police will find him. he believes me. if anyone else were to steal the bedside table and laptop, alain wouldn't have a reliable source to charge his cell phone and so he won't let this happen. he sneaks me the spare key to the room when he is not at work, so no other staff can enter. alain has a lot of friends who are in a similar predicament, so he can now charge them a small fee to have their phones charged. we are "in charge!" that is our little business! i hold the power in both senses of the term. i can confiscate some other guy's phone if anything happens, and alain would be in big trouble. i don't ask for a cut from his profits, alain does whatever it takes to guard the hallway, and my stuff is safe. only thing i hadn't thought of is turning the phones off while they charge...they kept me up all night. but still, pretty smart, eh?