Monday, June 30, 2008

3 kisses for kinshasa

it's definitely an understatement saying that the experience in congo as a young white girl is different than if you're a guy. indeed. there's a USAID intern here i met back in DC who will never get to eat goat, never get taken to a disco, never see the seedy underbelly of kinshasa. though he also barely speaks french he'll never really understand the nuances that make this place so incredibly funny.
kinshasa is the most disorganized, chaotic unbelievable mess - in all of africa, i'm told, i'm pretty sure that's true- and you see it all on the way to the airport. ahh, the airport road. i wish i could ask moses to take me to n'jili every day. utterly breathtaking. take every single english verb, and that's what you see on the way to the airport. people hugging, fighting, kissing, spitting, shitting, living and dying, selling things, buying things, breaking things, making things, i could go on for pages. you go through the zombie neighborhood they call china, which gets its name from being so insanely populated. people everywhere in every direction times infinity. overflowing from their dirty shanty town roads onto the street.
patrick is my driver today, he is talking, seemingly not paying attention as we narrowly avoid pedestrians, trucks, garbage. he is telling me how yesterday, when picking up the national geographic film crew they saw a guy get run over by a van. like, brains on the road, totally dead run over. the van, naturally, didn't even stop, business as usual. the pandamobile cannot rubberneck as this sort of situation can catalyze an angry mob. his mondeles were silent. welcome to kin, crazy shit!
today, the military guys have decided to charge to enter the airport parking lot, and the price is whatever you have. patrick reaches into the backsheesh stash in the glove compartment. only 10 bucks? you are out of luck, mondele. we talk him down to $12. i ask for a receipt, which is answered by a hand gesture which i presume is insulting.
we're carrying my bags to the entrance when a yellow mercedes comes careening towards us, and makes its own parking spot, half on the sidewalk in front of the door to the airport. it's moses! right on time.
the formalities prove as enjoyable as the ride here. moses takes my passport and i follow him as he high fives everyone like he's coming out with the Lakers onto the court before a game. he's handing out francs here and there. i say goodbye to patrick, three kisses on the cheek. an angry looking policeman suddenly blocks the entrance with his gun. i look for moses, i'm not paying this guy. but he doesn't want money, he wants three kisses too. and here we go.
i put my bags on the searching table and two guys go through my stuff like kids on christmas morning. they are pulling out panties, the ones with the little fish on them, laughing, asking me if they can keep them, a little humiliating, but still pretty funny. potential terrorists are just flowing into the hall as they concentrate on the rest of my stuff. they toss my frisbee a bit, try on some of my hand cream, "look at these tiny shoes, jacques! how cute!" they find my bonoculars and make me stand far away and hold up fingers. they are really enjoying themselves. do you have children? i have two cats. no children! i will give you a whole family! and so comes my first marriage proposal.
moses meanwhile has taken my passport to checkin, filling out forms, chit chatting with everyone i hope he is trying to get me into business class. out of nowhere, another police officer confronts me. i am benoit, where is your husband? uhhh, no husband. can i have your phone number! we need to get to know each other! and marriage proposal number 2. moses steps in, back off dude, don't you dare, and the policeman is all, moses! what's up buddy? and they do the head knocking hello. and then it's you know, moses times are tough blah blah blah moses gives him $5.
i have to show my bag to another guy who opens it up. you have not really been to congo unless you've been with a congolese! take me with you! proposal #3. this is getting ridiculous. he gives me his number and address, so i know where to find him. this is pichu, whom moses also knows well. she is mine, back off moses screams! we laugh. the baggage checkin lady is glaring at me, typical for the woman who is taking all her country's men home with her.i now have 4 hours to kill and moses and i go grab a drink in the same cafe we got wasted in last time i flew out. i am still severely hung over. i get a coke. people are coming by every 5 minutes to say hi to moses, borrow money, then ask me to marry them. moses writes some funny lingala phrases down for me in my notebook, so i can learn the lingo, like "where can i find a goat?" and "let's go to the discoteque!" and "i am looking for a congolese husband" and i test them out on all the passersby.
moses is out of small change, so he calls the money exchanger over. this is a guy with faux leopard skin pants, a tupac shirt, sunglasses, a huge gold cross, a calculator hanging around his neck, and stacks of freshly printed congolese money. we get more cokes and peanuts.finally, it's time to go.
moses sneaks me back in the secret entrance to customs. the customs guy is in this booth, high on this platform. i'm on my tippy toes to give my passport and all i see are some eyes under a beret. formalities finished, this is the end of the road for moses. 3 kisses. passport guy bangs on the window. eh, oh! what about me? i blow his 3 kisses towards the glass.
i'm getting my stuff from the x ray machine, which is more like decoration and doesn't seem to be doing much. the guys running it are drinking sprite and talking on their phones. i'm laughing at this whole day so far and some european guy asks me what's so funny. oh you know, how i'm on my 5th marriage proposal so far, just funny. he says i'm lucky. xray guy puts down his sprite and comes to look at my passport. are you french? american? BOTH? can i be number 6? get in line, buddy.
so it's off to the plane, all security guys on the runway are waving goodbye like i'm princess di. i get settled into my seat, the doors to the plane are closed, they are spraying the insecticide stuff, i look out the window towards the decrepit planes, the dudes hanging out under them to keep cool in the shade. and then i see moses, accompanied by one of the bright vest guys, he's running alongside the plane, sreaming something, waving. i try to explain to the guy next to me why this is so funny, oh he doesn't get it. this place rocks.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

au revoir kin

jack and i share an office. he's verrry upset since i told him i don't believe there's a god, or maybe just don't believe in his god and so now it's his job to convince me otherwise. he starts by proving instances where god exists, like when a baby is born, or how i ended up here in kinshasa (total act of god, indeed) and i'm all...geee...i don't know. if there was a god, he would make patrick give me the $100 he owes me (loan shark is not in my position description! then again, i might have fallen for a true congolese scam, we'll see), i say this nice and loud because patrick's office is next door. anyway, then i'm all, what if i want to be buddhist? muslim? and jack wants to take me to his church to show me how buddhism isn't right, but it sounds like a boring church. i only go to churches where they sing and dance, like the one my mom goes to in harlem.
so on my last day at work jack is going to make me read verses from the bible, to save me. you know, i'm almost finished with my last book, but i'm not sure this is the plane ride material i'm looking for. he was about to give up, as usual ending the conversation with, well you are crazy for not conforming with what's right, so he says, are you going to get married at least? well yeah, probably. well then lord will save your soul. then he tells me the whole office has been praying for me to hurry up and get married because i'm old. yeah, i'm sure they are.

so that's it, today is my last day. tomorrow starts the 53 hour journey home with so much to look forward to. going to miss this place though, even my hotel with its increasing frequency of awkward prostitute moments (APM) in the hallway. seriously, why don't you guys ever talk money matters BEFORE the deed. like a taxi ride.
they have also promised me they are going to fix the front door. chemical ali says "i'm so embarassed that you must get on your knees to enter our hotel (got a new technique using my ankles). it will be fixed by the next time you return, promise!" whatevs. i said goodbye to harvey, my waiter at the pizza place who kept asking for french book recommendations. probably the only waiter in kin that hasn't asked for my phone number, no he actually just wanted book titles. i gave the guards my leftover pizza the other night and they love me more than ever. they spring out of their plastic chair naps and open the big car gate now when i leave (instead of my sliding through the door sized one). how grand. i tell the bartender i am impressed at how they have been cramming my mini fridge with more and more beer every day (how does it fit?) and never any bottled water. seriously, i have 7 different brands in there now. including a litre of '33' Export. ah, il ne manque que de la '16'...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

jedi lady copper

one of the roundabouts we go through every day has a whole bunch of police officers. they are there to direct traffic, look angry with their guns, generally harass who they want, collect bribes etc...if you don't have diplomatic or international organization license plates you're pretty much guaranteed to have them join you in your car for a terrifying and expensive ride, it's happened to everyone. so these police, they're kind of like monkeys at the zoo, you're not supposed to look them in the eye. but there's one or two that i've found i can smile at, sometimes make a funny face to see if they have teeth, or a sense of humour.

there's a lady officer now too, and she's all made up with her blue eye shadow, hot pink lip stick i smile at her too. today though, i didn't know if i could take her seriously. she jumped out of one of those big van taxi things, arriving on time for work at 8am...holding one of those plastic jedi light saber toys. i'm not kidding, if i could have taken a picture without ending up in jail, i would have. her saber lit up a bright blue and she was using it to hold back pedestrians, wave cars through the intersection, poke people through their windows at their lack of seatbelt. she was not smiling today. this is her in all seriousness police weapon as she was conducting official police business.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

the goat cycle

so on this trip i've seen a goat be born and i've seen one die. the life cycle of the poor, tasty goat.
it was saturday night, my hotel was hosting a wedding and they pretty much told me to scram. they could have told me this before they enshrouded the entire compound in toxic anti-mosquito smoke which darkened the view from my window, and seeped under my door, burning my eyes and stinging my throat. i ran through the fog and complained to the reception guy who sortof shrugged. he shall henceforth be known as chemical ali.
so i called my peeps to flee the gas chamber, and the only person who answered was dr. frank. a doctor by training, who gave up his budding medical career to work at the ministry of environment. (this place really is backwards). i figure he's got some good plans lined for the night and he swings by to pick me up. he usually drives a red stationwagon, but tonight we were privy to the lime green pimpin' 88 mercedes. there's green fuzzy carpet on the dashboard and ceiling, furry seats. i try pull my door closed and i end up pulling off the handle. i ask to roll down my window and he sifts through the glove compartment for a ratchet thing that will let me turn the little gear. the car has no shocks and you can hear the wheels hit the car body at every pothole. nice car, dr. frank.
all of dr. franks phones are ringing, and he is answering each one, and still attempting to drive. people are calling asking, what are we doing tonight? and he's all, you know, the usual, "on va bander a bandal, comme d'hab." (i will not translate).
bandal is a "point chaud" a strictly congolese neighborhood and this is the first time i don't see any UN vehicles or mondeles. there are people, parties everywhere. traffic jams, guys selling stuff on their heads, hawking bags of smoked meat. it's completely dark, dust gets kicked up in front of our headlights.
we ditch the car somewhere and go to a dark patio outside a convenience store with the typical plastic chairs and tables. it's a sea of people on this wide dirt sidewalk. along comes blanchard - which i guess is the male form of blanche. he's definitely not blanche, a big burly congolese guy who lives Quebec! ben ouais!
so we're just hanging out drinking beers, every 10 seconds someone tries to sell us cigarettes, peanuts, lighters, lemons, tissue, you name it. then we smell a fire cookin'. we all look at each other and in unison "chevre!"
we pay our bill and drive down the street to a place only a block away, of course we must cruise by the joint with our windows half down before we decide to sit down. it's a massive sidewalk goat bbq. we double back and go to park and hop a little curb and suddently hear a terrible noise from the under the car. it moves, but only with this ominous scraping creaking sound. we get out to inspect. one front wheel is pointing one way, and the other is at a totally different angle to the car. you definitely have a problem here. dr. frank pops the hood. uh, seriously dude, i don't think looking at the engine is going to help here, as i'm kicking the wheel which sortof rattles. he takes out the dipstick, checks some cables, knocks on a few parts. no, really, dude! your car is fucked. i push against the car to nudge it, and you can tell the whole wheel is completely detached from the vehicle. well, at least it's well parked.
we walk to a patio set up in front of a clothing store. we are conveniently within view and ear shot of what seems to be the biggest goat cooking operation in kinshasa. a stream of guys are bringing in these bundles of sticks on their heads and feeding the fires underneath these rusty oil drums. there are endless grills of meat, and some stands with goat fur, goat horns, innards and livers and stuff like that. the guys are talking, i just zone out, i'm completely focused on the goat zone, where they have just led a goat to on a leash. blanchard refuses to look, he winces, holds his ears and shakes his head like a little boy. they lift the goat and tie it's back legs to some rope hanging from the thatch hut. i hear a blood curdling bleat and it's goodbye goat. within minutes the head is gone, and it has been skinned. i briefly tune back to blanchard's story, something about cell phone coverage and then i see the goat get sliced down the front with a machete and the guy is just digging his hands in and pulling stuff out.
oh, here come the intestines! the guy calmly coils them with his hands, like how rock stars wrap up their guitar cords at the end of a gig. this is some heavy shit. less than a foot away from the fountains of blood, people are knocking back beers, laughing. after a few more minutes, the only thing left are two goat feet, dangling and spinning on pieces of rope.
at this point i have to pee. bad. i was hoping it would just go away but it didn't. i'm pretty sure that the clothing store and the video shop that are hosting this impromptu party don't have actual facilities. i have to raise the awkward question "where can i whiz?" blanchard and dr. frank argue about where to send me. it is not clean here, you need to go there. they start talking about getting aids and diseases from a bathroom and i'm like, guys, i can hover over a hole without getting TB, trust me, i'll be fine, just tell me where.
dr. frank decides that i will go pee in a discoteque a block away. we walk there and he does the head knocking hello thing (guys do this instead of kissing) with the bouncer and i go in. it's empty, except for the blacklights, seedy prostitutes in this teeny tiny one room place with a dancefloor. i go to the back door, which leads to an open courtyard. the men's bathroom is apparently anywhere, as dudes are zipping up their flies and leering at me. there's an arrow painted on a pockmarked wall pointing to the ladies room.
now, if a bathroom consists of several elements, like a toilet, a seat, toilet paper, maybe a flushing mechanism, all this place really had going for it was the door. i rolled my pants up to my knees before wading through the deep puddle and peed in some sort of pile. and this is the 'cleanest' bathroom around.
we return to our patio to find our goat served in a paper bag with onions and some chicken and some of that manioc crap that's so gross. our utensils are toothpicks, one each. we have to buy napkins from one of the kids. i don't recognize all the different textures, there's a lot of bone and gristle that you just spit onto the ground, but in the end, most of it is pretty friggin' tender.
the guys decide that they want to go dancing. i need to write a no dancing clause into my contract or something because all over this trip, all guys ever want to do is go dancing so they can rub up on me. i'm perfectly content to sit here and drink beer and watch more goats get slaughtered, but i guess if i'm ever going to see a kin night club, it's now. and so i prepare my "i don't know how to dance and i have a really bad back" speech, which has worked well so far..
we go to bombayala, a "ruthless" disco according to the sign. we enter after a high five from blanchard to each of the bouncers. they make me walk in first. great. record skipping, crowd parting - whothefuckisthis? some sort of tunnel vision nightmare full of angry people, one of the many moments i wish i could just darken my skin for a night.
we meet a cute girl with huge dreds who leads us to the back and shows us a door. a door that obivously goes to the bathrooms. they are pushing me in - i'm like, bathroom? why? no, i'm fine. what? blanchard insists. we pass the men's room with its glorious views of guys peeing freely, then the women's room with a line of ladies adjusting their halter tops and finally, the handicap bathroom. blanchard kicks open the door and voila, the secret back bar. nice job!
mirrors on every wall and ceiling, people dancing with their reflection, major blacklights, green lasers, disco balls, everything. thankfully, these girls prove their desire to dance with me and take my hands and stuff, and so the guys go find someone else (after they take their wedding rings off of course). i really hope these girls i'm dancing with are not prostitutes.
at one point though, blanchard is facing me, but he's not actually dancing with me, as he's really just grinding his huge butt into a chick behind him. awesome.
the novelty is over, we start hearing the same songs again, and no one has bought me a drink, i'm outta here. my awesome taximan, baby, from last time, his number still works! he cannot believe where he is picking me up. crazy mondele!
i get to my hotel and this time the guards weren't asleep - they were piss drunk. the old fat papi tried to bear hug me. the other cried "our favorite little portuguese girl!" a third one came stumbling out of the bushes. so the wedding c'etait le fun, hein? mais oui!!! but next time we will marry youuuu! i watched this spectacle for a few moments, these dizzied, dancing, mumbling wastoids. i shoulda have captured video of their antics. i squeezed in the sliding door and high fived chemical ali who spilled his beer onto the computer keyboard. i tell you, these people know how to party.

Monday, June 23, 2008


so when you're a white girl all by yourself on a saturday in kinshasa, there's not much to do. i didn't have plans until 3, and thought i would check out the neighborhood. my hotel is right next to the cimetiere de gombe, thought i would take a look.
as i was entering through the gates some of the police officers sitting under a tree wave me over. this police station is actually a shipping container with holes cutout for a door and a window. they are playing cards and smoking. they ask me what i'm doing under their tree.
well, you waved me over here.
oh. do you want to smoke?
i don't smoke.
do you want to smoke?
we have things besides cigarettes.
are they selling me drugs? uhhh i ask if i can visit the cemetary.
whose tomb do you want to visit?
no one in particular, just curious! hear that? she's curious. they laugh and send me on my way.
the cemetary is a maze of tombs and weeds and lizards everywhere. out of nowhere these two barefoot guys show up and lead me around. they climb all over the tombs like monkeys. i feel weird stepping on dead people. but there's no way to get around, everything is super close to together, almost on top of eachother. i see lots of funny names of people but after a while it gets super creepy. more and more dudes are showing up, surrounding me, and so i exit onto the street.
there, i see one of the guys in the homemade wheelchairs. it's a plastic chair on this altered bike frame thing with three wheels. you pedal with your hands to power the front wheel. guy really wanted me to take his picture and tell the world of his plight. i didn't have any money, if that's what he wanted. he didn't want any money, he just wanted me to take a picture to tell the belgians how much he is suffering. ok, i felt kinda weird, and sad because his chain was broken in two places and so he couldn't really propel himself. my brother could totally fix his chain.
i took a picture but it ended up out of focus. this whole being outside thing was making me nervous and i retreated back to my hotel and the TNA channel (Total Nonstop Action. bring it van damme).
so much for saturday.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

kinshasa has a jazz festival

this weekend is the 2nd international jazz festival in kinshasa, part of the fete de la musique. last year's was pretty cool, so we went back with a bunch of people from the office. they blocked off a street in front of some bars and restaurants, and have laid out a whole shipment of brand new plastic tables and chairs with skol written all over them - one of the beer companies sponsoring the event. the interesting thing to note is whenever skol sponsors something, you cannot buy primus (the other beer) or coke or sprite or anything, only skol or temba (the dark beer with the cool elephant logo) and their own disgusting versions of soft drinks. brussels airlines is the other sponsor and every table has a booklet of all the brussels air flight timetables. because knowing when the tokyo flight lands is crucial info to keep in your back pocket. i'm asking people to guess how long it takes to get to atlanta from dakar.
to order drinks you have to go buy tickets from the lady with the tupperware bucket of cash.

she'll give you these raffle ticket things, and if you need change, she'll dig through her bucket, making sure to give you the dirtiest, grimiest, smelliest bills she can find. the tickets came in groups of 3. for some insanely stupid reason, one dollar is actually 3 tickets. and the price structure is as follows:
draft beer = $1 (3 tickets)
soft drink = $3 (9 tickets) yes, 3 times the cost of a beer
big bottle of beer (33 export) = $5 (15 tickets)
coffee = free
crepes, food = $4 (12 tickets)
water was not an option.
so then you would take your tickets back to your table and order from these ladies in uniforms and they would have to do this really complicated math to figure out how many tickets you owed, it was ridiculous. oh, and then they would deliver your beers one by one, so ordering drinks for each of the 7 people at our table took forever. why do they have this stupid ticket system? you'll find out.
towards the end, bruno says, why don't we just buy tickets directly from the waitress and save ourselves a trip to the ticket booth? waitress says no problem. bruno orders 7 beers and gives her a crisp 20 dollar bill. she never comes back, totally disappears. probably ran off with her friends, woohooo! 20 bucks! bruno's wife is all, i can't believe we've been living here for 3 years and you still get ripped off like this.
at one point i went into one of the restaurants to pee, and i meet these belgian guys in white linen shirts. turns out they're the next band to go on. so what type of music? blues. well, blues jazz. more like afro blues jazz. laurent, don't tell her that. oh, it's a surprise. ok. laurent has a trumpet and the second guy an accordion on his back. i've never heard jazz accordion. it's turns out it's more like a romanian polka klezmer music. at one point laurent plays two trumpets at once. the documentary film maker sitting at our table who shares the same name as my uncle david leans over, "this is our music!" referring to our jewish heritage.
anyway, in the middle of one of their songs, some fireworks went off. first it was a few roman candles lighting up a big "temba" sign above a parking garage a mere 150 feet away. everyone goes ahhhhhh! tembaaaaa! then, full on insane fireworks for almost 30 minutes. at first we're like, eh, cool, and everyone is laughing. the fireworks are shooting straight at this apartment building, people who were out on their balconies are running for cover, closing their windows. the stairwell of the building doesn't have windows, it's a cement wall with those small square holes. fireworks are going inside these holes and security guards are stomping on the flames. this is precariously close to a crowded downtown, not nearly high or far enough away for anyone's safety. sparks are raining down on the crowd who is still in shock/awe. the fireworks get louder, closer, bigger. the screaming ones, the big ones with smaller explosions inside. it goes on and on and on. this is insane! people are screaming, laughing, taking pictures. we're presuming a container full of fireworks destined for capetown must have been hijacked or something, this must cost a fortune. one of the buildings that appear to be the fireworks main target still has pock marks from last year's violent outbreak after the elections. this town is not ready for fireworks.

"there is nothing right about those fireworks"
they are pretty
"still, nothing right about those fireworks"
the fireworks stop, the klezmer band resumes, we cannot stop talking about the i thought this was a jazz festival? later on i see the belgian musicians and was all, nice jazz. and they were all, we brought an upright bass all the way from brussels, so eat me.
at the end of the night we go back to bruno's car. we try to remember which guy we had entrusted the security of our vehihcle with. junior or something? he had a ripped t shirt and a hat. we pile into the truck and there are about 25 angry guys surrounding us, banging on the windows. bruno is scanning the crowd like it's a police line up. they all have ripped t-shirts and hats.
was it that guy?
i don't know, usually, there are only 3 guys to choose from.
which one of you is junior?
i am! i am! no i am! monsieur, you don't remember me?
we can't decide. they are getting angrier and angrier. the police are intervening, but end up just knocking on the door, asking for their own share. four of us each open our windows a tiny crack and slide some bills through and tell them to work it out. they are still banging, climbing on the hood. brigitte remarks that they are not that agressive this evening. you mean it's worse?
next time we'll park over there. over there are a bunch of mercedes surrounded by a linear patrol of guys in the homemade wheelchairs, forming a perfect calm fence. yeah, those guys are organized.
just as we lose the crowd of banshees a composed friendly guy comes up, hello i am joseph, your car guard. oh shit, that's him. well, sorry buddy, we don't have any more small bills. you should have been here earlier!
joseph is piiissed, he runs after the truck but we quickly lose him. we decide to go to another bar to get the 7 beers that bruno had ordered earlier. we find a place called "los latinos", that has a pervasive east african theme - masks, zebra skins. it's owned by a greek guy named george, which explains the nets, buoys and stuffed fish hanging from the ceiling (sortof like the wading river king kullen from the days of yore). there are nothing but middle aged guys sitting around in these leather club chairs, lionel richie blaring from the sound system. someone quickly changes the tv channel from porn to something else. this place isn't bad, though. george hooks us up with 2 rounds of free beers in addition to the one that was supposed to be our last. he also gives us mini quiches and mini pizzas. he likes that we brought females into his bar.

i get home at 1:30 am and have to wake up the guard to get in. he's sprawled on a couch in the reception, gun on the floor. nice. i sleep until 11, missing breakfast by an hour. the restaurant still has the usual 6 or 7 staff hanging around the bar though. i sit by the pool and ask for a coffee.
"you cannot stay here, we are working" say some dudes hanging out under an umbrella, making a general hand motion towards the pool. yeah, working, whatever. so i get shooed away into the freezing cold restaurant that is blaring tropical music that is intensifying my hang over.
breakfast is over madame
but you are still open, yes?
may i have a coffee?
breakfast is over, madame.
i just want a coffee.
lady looks extremely perplexed and comes back with the chef who repeats to me that breakfast is over.
i just want a goddamn coffee. do you have coffee?
yes. would you like milk?
milk is only served with breakfast, you cannot have milk.
fine, i'll take tea! and so i stole a spoon and retreated to my room and ate yogurt.

Friday, June 20, 2008

c'est very bien, yes

today was workshop day 1. 22 congolese guys, and lisa and myself. at lunch there was an instance of extreme chivalry. all the guys were lined up at the buffet and the waiter comes over to find me listening to lisa tell a story about this woman who got lost in the rainforest for 2 weeks a few months back, and was believed to be dead until some poachers brought her back to camp. this story is really good, because i guess she was vegetarian and starving and a conservation scientists and had to eat bushmeat.
so the waiter says, "ladies first" and points us to the buffet and we're all yeah, thanks, so finish the story! then he interrrupts again and hands us plates, ladies, please. and we're all, yeah, ok, whatever, thanks, we don't care, so back to the story. and finally the waiter is all no, really, ladies first. he insists. it is policy. we will not allow the men to eat before the women. and we look at the buffet line and it's a whole bunch of really hungry guys impatiently crowding around the chicken stew and rice. oooookaaaay. fine.

after the workshop we all had to pile into a truck to go back to the office. there were 8 of us all squeezed in, me and lisa sharing the passenger seat up front. we get stuck in traffic and so you get the guys that sell stuff between the cars. they all came to our winndow, pointing, screaming mambimana, which is like mami mania or something. one guys was all look, it's a car full of congolese guys with white lady siamese twins in the front!! very strange. they also alluded to our lesbianism and which one of us must be the butchy one. the whole car is laughing. actually, most of the time we're driving around we're laughing. like in the morning we saw a really small guy on a really big bike. he could barely reach the handle bars and pedals, i don't know how he did it. anyway, apparently a shipment of hedge clippers flipped over in the congo river because all the guys were selling hedge clippers. and clocks with religious or nautical themes, teletubby balloons, jump ropes and mini tennis ball key chains. wouldn't all of that just make the best xmas gifts ever? shoulda done all my shopping.
so then i met up with yolande, a congolese intern that was in my office last summer, with whom i'd make fun of the other interns in french with. she's doing her phD in the states now so she speaks total frenglish, kinda like i did when i was a kid. "alors i don't know, i think that j'aimerais order des frites." she's stuck in DRC though because she ran out of pages in her passport, and they won't renew her visa because she doesn't have any pages. can't you just get a new passport?
y'a pas.
same answer they give you at breakfast when you ask for papaya.
y'a pas.
there are no more passports in DRC. they ran out. so she is waiting for le lot magique to come in, hopefully before her semester starts again. man, c'est totally sucky, ca.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

hotel: congo-style

so, i actually really like my hotel. granted, it's waaaay overpriced (i feel really bad that the office is spending almost $150 a night on me), it's almost as expensive as the grand hotel or the memling, which are closer to the real deal (or an african version of a best western or something). anyway, there's electricity, hot water, pool, internet, the works!
when you want to enter the compound in your honk your horn and they open these rrrrrrrreally squeaky metal doors. all night i hear rrrreeeeeerrrrkkkkkkkk! over and over. there's a guy that washes the front gates every day, and even soaks the cement on the ground to clean it, but no one has any wd-40.
to enter the hotel there's a sliding glass door, but it doesn't really slide. if you pull on the handle normally, it tips diagonally on a corner, and comes off the track and then you're really in trouble. that happened to me my first day, i had a bag of of groceries, my laptop, a big water bottle, hands full so then i find myself holding up this huge plate of glass wtih my cheek, preventing it falling down the stairs and smashing into a million pieces. the guy inside sits at a little wooden desk, he checks his email, looks up, marginally entertained by my struggle and goes back to youtube.
though, whenever people come to pick me up, i have to admit that i often wait for them on the flowery couches, and get my kicks out of watching double guy maneuver the door. he actually figured out my trick the first time, you open it a crack, then stick your foot in the bottom to push it open juuuuust enough to squeeze through sideways if you hold your stomach in. to close it, you grab the far side with two hands and delicately put it back into place, perfectly booby trapped for the next guest. voila. damn italian guy has discovered the alternate exit by the pool.
the restaurant is weird. there are 15 tables, permanently set for all the invisible dinner guests (i am always solo in the evening, with three waiters standing a foot away, giggling when i mistake the toothpick dispenser for pepper. yeah, so i pour 25 toothpicks all over my meal, what are you looking at?). the only place you can get breakfast is at one breakfast table near the bar. mind you, it's a 6 person table, so when you're late and everyone else is already there, you have to squeeze in. no sitting at another table!

the other guests don't really seem like morning people. they sit in complete silence. this morning i read a bonobo book and swatted at mosquitos while they just stared. meanwhile, the waiter is freaking out. breakfast for 7 people! he doesn't know what to do. he brings individual pots of coffee or hot water for each person (no sharing?) so it takes a while to get everyone going on caffeine. then he'll bring one whole breakfast meal out, like some butter, jam, milk, juice, toast, omelet, but spread it all over the table, like socialism. so i'll get the butter, italian guy gets the milk and two belgians get the juice and omelet. the last course is the papaya course. belgian guy 1 luuuuuuvs papaya, and he'll wait around. this morning, waiter was all "no papaya today!" and so belgian guy storms off. two seconds later, the waiter brings papaya. i hate papaya, i think it smells like feet, so i trade with italian guy.
poor italian guy, he is so lost. i spotted him trying to hail a taxi today. dude, white people do not hail taxis in this town. you need a personal car with a driver (like baby!) so these vans and cars jam packed with people were slowing down just enough to scream this fact out their windows, but he apparently does not understand french. he also doesn't know that walking around with that shiny sony laptop under his arm is also a bad idea. italian guy, we are going to have a little talk tomorrow at breakfast.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

congo is cooler

congo is way more fun than mozambique or namibia. i think speaking the language makes a huge difference, and these people are just whack enough to make for good times.the other night i was invited to the house of the Congo Basin USAID director.
on our way there we had a typical time on the road. a police officer will wave you through an intersection where the stoplight isn't working (no stoplights are ever working). he'll be whistling at you, all "come on!" but no one driving in the other direction even cares. they are blowing by him so fast his beret is nearly taken off his head. you'd think he would use the ak-47 slung around his shoulder and get some respect but no. so then he gives up and walks along the median, as our driver inches out into the constant stream of jalopies. lisa says as a general precaution "you might want to lock your door" to the lady sitting in the front. she fiddles with the door handle right when the cop walks by, so now he thinks she's going to give him something so he presses his nose against the window. we do not want this cop pressing his nose against the window because now he sees her lock the door and is very insulted. we quickly drive away.
lisa and the lady up front want cigarettes, so now we're driving slowly looking for the guys on the side of the street who sell cigarettes. we find some and pull over and roll down the window and get mobbed by the guys with the cell phone recharges, batteries, lemons. lisa's real good, she speaks lingala and sets the tone, like, stop! only one of you is selling me cigarettes, all hands out of the car! so the four guys argue over who was there first. then there's haggling over the price, with all these crazy words like mapongo, matebishe papa! the matebishe is the little gift you get when you buy something. lisa says she'll pay for 4 bucks if they throw in matches for free. they say they have no matches. they are totally lying but whatever, we're getting hungry.
we finally get to our destination - a huge, lavish, perfectly air conditioned house with a special distilled water pump, high ceilings and endless living, dining, bedrooms, an outdoor bar overlooking the private pool in the courtyard. i should note that the state department interns live in an identical house in the same compound. the chef, papa daniel was busy in the kitchen as we took our drinks in one of the huge sitting areas. i had pastis and a 2004 bordeaux with dinner. the table was set real formal, with several plates and forks, and i think papa went a little too crazy with the napkins. there was one all accordioned in the wine glass, another bouquet'd in the water glass and a third under the spoon. i leaned over to my colleague and whispered "i've never eaten at such a fancy table before, which napkin do i use with the appetizer?" there were lots of stories, courvoisier and drambuie for digestif. i was invited to stay if i get sick of my hotel, called the "african dream." hmmmm, i could live this life, drinking cognac, playing chess on the huge coffee table every night instead of getting electrical shocks from light switches.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

kinshasa round two

back to the heart of africa. if you were to split africa into two types of countries, you'd have the beret countries, and the non-beret countries, reflecting the dress of the police. beret guys are angry with guns, non beret guys are not. namibia is a non-beret country, DRC, beret. you get it.
when you travel from a non-beret country to a beret country, it takes some getting used to. first of all, the seat number on your boarding pass only determines the general vicinity of where you will sit. i think it's only a rule that you be within 10 rows. if someone isn't in your seat, there's probably someone next to you with a card for somewhere 7 rows down on the other side of the aisle. this usually isn't a problem, people figure it out, southwest style, until some UN bitch on her cell phone with her white jeans (who can get away with having white jeans stay white in africa??) shows up and wants to sit in her seat, and only her seat. i do not want 21C, i want my seat, 22C. so then everyone has to get up and rearrange, like one of those little puzzles with the moving squares and the one empty space. so we had to move the 90 year old handicapped woman and the lady with three babies and delay departure so miss espana can sit where she chooses. miss espana was in a super crummy mood because they made her check her huge suitcase at the gate. they were having some sort of space crisis so anyone with those rolly suitcases that everyone believes is carryon size but isn't, had to check them. my bag was just as big, but i managed to slip by the tagging guy while a congolese passenger started making a scene. perfect timing. i wanted to back him up though, seriously faux-hawked south african airways guy, have you ever been to the kinshasa airport? it's like the bargain bin at filene's basement on the day after christmas. if they had made me check my stuff, i would have just as well bought a whole other ticket on another plane because it would have been cheaper than replacing all my personal electronics.
so in the departure lounge i had gotten all pissed in my mind at my travel agent, because i saw on the board that there was a kinshasa-joburg flight that landed in time for me to connect to DC on my way home - and would have prevented me from spending another night in hellhole joburg at the end of my trip (lonely planet guide: if you have to go to johannesburg, find a reason not to. if you still have to go, don't go outside. if someone mugs you and you're white, they'll assume you have a gun, which means they definitely have a gun). anyway, the airline was HBA though, never heard of it. landing in kin, i saw their fleet. hera-bowa airlines or something. um, have you ever flown on a plane with visible rust? one side of the nose was dented in, concave, like they had a fender bender with a boeing.
the n'djili airport was just like i remembered it: chaos. my star handler moses was waiting at immigration, with his huge dolce & gabana belt buckle, fly pointed shoes, fresh pinstripe suit with a pink silk tie and killer shades. i gave him some biltong (game meat jerkey from SA) and he patted the customs guy on the shoulder, who serenely halted opening my bag to search it.
i used the toilet, which wasn't hooked up to any flushing mechanism, just a bowl. the sink, just a sink with holes, no spiggots or anything. AND someone actually asked me to pay a dollar to pee.
the baggage claim is also like i remembered it. everyone crowds around with their baggage ticket in their hand like they are betting on a horse race. they check every single bag that comes around and compare it with their number to see if they win. oh! so close! #124996, and i have #124995! so what, as if their belongings may have jumped cases, like a hermit crab or something? is what they checked maybe different than what comes out? so the bags go around, and these guys red in jumpsuits go around on the conveyor too. like, you can choose your bag AND the guy to carry it for you. i don't need a guy, cuz i got moses, right? and so i keep having to turn them away. moses is hanging around with his boys, and talking on one of his phones and when i have everything he picks the lightest bag, like my laptop. so then i do get a baggage guy and he's not happy with the $2 i'm giving. like, that's a lot, shut up. i've given away so many single bills, it's a good thing i came prepared like a stripper.
it was amazing coming in on a sunday afternoon. everyone is out on the street. piles of garbage, piles of tires, piles of junk on wheels that still run, couches for sale in the dirt under trees, people stuffed into vans that have airholes cut out of the sides, and a pleasant new addition - community gardens everywhere. green plants growing in all the medians. cool.
kinshasa round 2. it's totally the opposite of namibia, but way better in my opinion.

Monday, June 16, 2008

the miracle of life

so then came the game count. we had a long drive to wereldsend (world's end, literally), going by twyfelfontain, a nice area with posh lodges and some rock carvings. we visited the carvings and then stuffed our faces at a restaurant and drank cold guava juice, hadn't had a real meal or refreshing drink in days.
we arrive at the group camp, which is home to the save the rhino trust, and a bunch of local NGO's. w
e set up our tents in this nice shady area and waited for some other folk who never showed up. a few hours later a pickup arrives with about 12 people stuffed in the back like cows or sheep. they unload a whole bunch of crap, tents, mattresses, bags...and half of an animal. they said it was zebra, but it was actually gemsbok, you can tell from the hoof. (this made me wonder how reliable they would be for the game count. then again, i still don't know the difference between a cheetah and a leopard, and i still call rhinos hippos). they put it on a table and hacked at it with machetes for a while, and then lit a fire and cooked it in these giant iron cauldrons. they offered me some, but if the best time to get diarrhea is during a game of scrabble, then the worst time is riding in the back of a pickup truck for 6 hours in the bush with strangers. i politely declined.after dinner we had a group meeting about what would happen during the game count, how we would split up into groups etc...i met my team, #4 and we planned our early departure of 6 am the next morning. i went to bed, and they stayed up late and sang and laughed and talked around the fire pretty much all nite so i was quite dead at 5 am. i was sick of the caffeine withdrawal headaches and went over to their site and asked for coffee, holding my cup out like a beggar. instant ricoffy. no milk. i took a good shot of it and hopped into the truck, the sun barely over the horizon. it was rrrrreally our starting point we went over our tasks and set off, driving 35 mph through these bumpy rock roads looking for wildlife taking notes on distance from the road and numbers. these guys had crazy eagle eyes, picking out lone springbok on a far away hill, whereas i was all, ooh! look over there! and would be pointing at donkeys. the weather slowly warmed up, and i peeled off layers until i was sweating through my t-shirt and getting a nice farmer's tan.
there was n
othing soft to sit on in the back of the pickup, and my ass was being pounded into the metal wheel well, which, someone had managed to spill a liter of coffee on. sometimes i would stand and hold onto the side window of the cab and try to surf out the bumps, but would almost always get thrown out whenever we hit a good one. the coveted spot in the back is in the spare tire. it's not attached to anything so it bounces around a fair bit, but it's like your very own bumper car, with some extra cush for the tush.
everyone had their tupperware of leftover meat from the previous night's feast, and were munching on bon
es and ribs throughout the drive. sometime around 11 am, we started stopping a lot more, and guys were running behind euphorbia bushes with rolls of toilet paper and coming back rubbing their bellies, shaking their heads: the international sign for i shouldn't have eaten that sketchy meat. toldja so!oddly enough though, as we saw all this amazing wildlife, and even as guys were pooping and puking behind bushes, i have to say i was often thinking which animal would taste the best, and which one i would order upon our return to joe's in windhoek. the springbok is tasty and tender, a small agile animal. but what next? i decided on the gemsbok, the georgeous oryx, which are hands down the coolest, with their tv antennae horns and swishy tails: kudu looks too horselike and muscular, and i've already had zebra, which was just like a big hunky steak. coulda been beef.
we also saw some giraffes. this my first giraffe!
we made a lot of random stops, which is totally against game count protocol, but whatever, i wasn't one to say anything. we stopped at a place that had all this bloody meat hanging, and i guess they were arranging the next day's meal. we stopped at some farm when the lady in our group had to go do her duty, and couldn't handle being behind the bushes anymore i guess. these people at the farm had a million goats. there was one pen full of the babies and another full of adults. i was checking them out, petting a cat, taking pictures when woah, one of those goats is pooping something really weird.'s a little head! and a foot! it's giving birth! this is the first time i have seen the miracle of life, people. couldn't take me eyes off it. it plopped out 5 minutes later, all dirty and gross, but was immediately making noise and trying to stand. cooooool.
we were the last team to make it back to camp, hours after the others, and they were ready to send a search party for us. robin was all, what were you guys up to? what animals did you see? i saw a goat give birth! wait, what?

on day 2, our route was far more spectacular, and smooth, along sandy riverbeds and lush valleys. for the first hour, i was severaly admonished for once again shunning the fire/meat party. "why do you eat far away from us? wrong! wrong!" but they didn't exactly invite us, either. i apologized profusely. next time, i'll know better. tho, i will admit that they were all in bed moaning and groaning by 7pm.
alas, we saw almost no animals, because according to legend if a baboon is the first animal you see in the morning, then you will have bad luck, and we did. (they were all like, duh, everyone knows that about baboons. don't you have the baboon rule in the US? you americans are just weird.) so we say nuthin' for hours. then, some magnificent gemsbok in a beautiful yellow field, some more baboons leering at us, and finally a few kudu. one guy did manage to spot an old mattress that had somehow gotten stuck in a euphorbia bush. he jumped out and grabbed it, a ratty, nasty foam thing wrapped in electrical cord. of the major rules in life, 1 is to not eat meat that's been sitting in the back of a truck, 2 is to try to stay away from nasty used mattresses. but to demonstrate to you how much my ass was hurt and bruised from the previous day, i sat on said nasty mattress for three whole hours. and i'm still alive. so there.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

elephants and clowns

so the next day we drove to brandberg, this huge mountain that has namibia's highest peak. this is brandberg, with a spirnging springbok in front of get there you go through Uis, another ghost town that gives me nightmares. we park in this barren shopping center to buy some friggin' matches. we get approached by guys selling minerals and i point to the sign that says "any transgressors caught selling minerals will be prosecuted." next comes a guy who introduces himself as Marco, the best branberg guide available. he insists he's worked with our organization and drops a name. then repeats the name again and again like, oh, i worked with eric last year, do you know eric? yes, we know eric. i also know Eric, too, oh yeah, and eric, eric is a nice guy.
marco says he needs a ride to branberg and can show us around. robin and i confer in secret: well the lonely planet guide sucks and we can't send this guy packin' he seems to know conservation, we sort of have a reputation here...we should at least give him a ride and then see what's up. so we say sure, why not.
marco says his friend christian needs a ride too. so they both hop in. i'm very wary. making sure i see their hands, no funny business. we all exchange names and it's obivous they've forgotten mine because every sentence starts with "rrrrrrobin!" with a big rolled r, but they'll actually talk to both of us. "rrrrrrobin! i hope you don't think it's rude if we stop somewhere first to pick something up?" no, that's ok. so we stop at a store. marco goes in and christian starts telling us how he's on the board of this conservancy that he works with. guy knows what's going on, sounds legit. i start to relax. marco comes out of the store with a bag full of 2 liter beer bottles and some wine, tho it looks light brown so it must be moonshine or something. i'm thinking they are going to drink them over the weekend but no, they open the booze right then and there, and start swilling. they also start negotiating their price. 300 namibian dollars per person and we will show you elephants! um, that's ok, thanks, we're the ones giving you a ride here, you should pay us! hahahaha...swig swig swig, spill booze all over our vehicle.
they start arguing with each other in clicky language. i'm convinced they're deciding who will slit my throat and who will drive the getaway car. robin is from montreal so i start speaking in french. what do you think of these guys? how much do you want to pay them? do we have to? marco pipes up "rrrrrrobin! do you think that we don't understand french? why don't you just talk about us in english?" a little awkward. i tell them if they speak clicky, we will speak french. he says "ca m'est egal." dang.
with booze they start to mellow out, make jokes, chit chat. marco pulls out a cigarette. sorry, no smoking in the car guys. "rrrrrrobin! can you stop the car so that i may smoke and christian can show you the euphorbias?" ok, i guess. we get out and go to a euphorbia tree. they smoke like chimneys. christian rubs a euphorbia branch with two rocks and some milky stuff comes out. "poison! very bad!" yes, we know. "poison!" yeah, got it, why don't you prove it is poisonous? "haha, you are very funny!" back in the car, 5 minutes later christian is moaning and rubbing his eye. "euphorbia! in my eye!" oh great, this clown got poison in his eye. we use half our water supply to rinse it out. who are these clowns? they teach me the four different Damara language clicks. impossible. saying good morning requires two different types of clicks really quickly you have to bite your tongue. for some random reason, maybe boredom, we decide that they will show us a campsite, some elephants, and we will pay them 200 Namibian dollars. sortof a lot, but, whatever. they are excited, but argue a lot with the clicking. we first stop at this village, its location is noted thanks to the sign: an old car door. here we meet this really old guy and they ask where the desert elephants are. the guy gets really excited and starts acting out this whole elephant encounter. this is already worth my $100. the old guy and his buddy let me take pictures and they draw a little map in the sand. mapping! we offer them some marie cookies, even though they have no teeth. they are very grateful. we go to the campsite, these shady spots all spread out along the river, very nice. i pitch my tent in the middle of a whole bunch of elephant prints. the reception we decide to get a cold drink and have our lunch. we pull out our picnic and the two clowns pull out theirs. nevertheless ours seems more appealing, so they are digging into our hard boiled eggs and peanut butter. they are making hard-boiled egg and peanut butter sandwiches with our bread. who are these clowns? marco is peeling his third egg and i put the carton away. half my eggs are gone! the only thing that makes up for it is this really cute baby meerkat running around under our. feet. i pick him up and put him in my lap and i want to take him home.
we drive down towards the river bed, and during the dry season, they become smooth roads. there are lots of tire tracks...and elephant prints, not to mention huge piles of poo, like basketballs. fresh, too. i'm becoming a real skatologist here.
we turn a corner and there they are. magnificent. and a little baby elephant too! we climb up onto a ledge and robin and i are pefectly content to watch the elephants do their thing - douse themselves with dust, grab at trees with their trunks. marco and christian are holding onto their beer bottles, they insist on taking pictures for me. they take terrible pictures. like half an elephant. we must get closer! closer! no seriously guys, this is fine, we can see perfectly. we must get closer! so much for the client being boss. so we get into the car and slowly drive up, pretty damn close to these elephants. marco and christian are all "we have to be rrreallly quiet! the elephant doesn't like noise!" only he is screaming this and we are all, we understand so shut up. and then marco says yeah, shut up dude, and then christian says no you shut up and then they get into a clicky argument and i just wanted to knock their heads together like curly and moe. they insist on taking more pictures...of the rear view mirror, the back of robin's head. maybe they don't understand the look through the viewfinder part. they think they are doing me a huge favor but they are just using up my battery. then this south african guy shows up and long story short, the guy pisses off a big elephant and it starts to charge his car. he backs up out of the way and swerves so that the elephant is headed straight towards us. i am imagining our car being crushed, sides impaled by tusks. we peel out of there and go a little further, but now the elephants and the two clowns are now very agitated. the clowns won't stop yelling and getting out of the car to go yell at the south african guy and the elephants are giving us the stink eye. for the love of god will everyone just shut the fuck up!! but they won't. it goes on. finally they say "ok we saw the elephants now we can leave."
their eyes are all glazed over, they are sweating, totally wasted drunk. on the way back, christian breaks out the marriage proposal "i will treat you so well you won't have to work"
oh really? what will i do then?
"you will tend the crops"
oh, sounds awesome! will you be drunk all or only most of the time?
"i want to go live in texas"
this sounds delightful!
we get back to the campsite and frick and frack are pulling out their tent, all excited about camping with us, fully expecting to mooch off us for the rest of the weekend.
"we will guide you to the white lady (another rock painting. ho-hum)"
will you be loud and annoying eat all our food too? here's your $200, now scram!
as we booted him out of the car christian asked "i did well, right?"
yah, sure ya did. i did get their mailing address though, and i plan on sending them each a t-shirt - one obama and one hillary.

Friday, June 13, 2008

colonel's hat

so, where to start. turns out my colleague robin is getting shmoozed by the namibia office to come do a stint here. so, they were more than generous in lending us a truck, camping equipment, pretty much everything we need for a swell week in the bush.
we loaded up on food at the supermarket downtown. we're all giddy for our trip, planning our meals. inside the store we are arguing over how many packages of marie cookies. these are little sugary biscuits like the petit beurre, or petit exquis you get in france. robin loves them. he cleans out the shelf and puts 10 packages in the cart. 10 packages? he says, you're right! we need more! and finds another.
so we parked on the main avenue on the main strip of downtown windhoek. there are people everywhere, it's saturday morning. we come out with our full bags of groceries and are loading them into the back of the truck when this guy starts moaning like a zombie and going through the bags. i try to shoo him away like a fly but he won't leave. out of the corner of my eye i notice another guy opening the other side passenger door. mutherf$%*# it's a scam! i grab the guy nanoseconds before he makes off with my passport, money, camera, cell phone, pretty much anything he wants. he shrugs and walks away. i look at everyone on the street, wondering why no one cares that this guy was blatantly robbing us? are they probably thinking, eh, another rich white person getting what they deserve? who knows. i was pissed.
it took me a while to relax, but the beautiful mountains, springbok and abundant wildlife soon settled in. in one town with a crazy name like otjiwarongo we stopped to gas up and for some insane reason i was lured to these meat pies in a display case. wiener-shnitzel. from a namibian shell station. robin bought one too. i was happy, my stomach was not.
along the way i notice we are running over these huuuuuuge insects. like tarantula size. but they're not spiders, they're some sort of cricket. crunch...crunch...cru-crunch...for miles and miles and miles. what are these things? they're everywhere! crunch! this is what they look like:we make our way to the spitzkoppe - a.k.a the colonel's hat. looks like it, a big hat shaped boulder thing. totally huge. i had read in the lonely planet about this community campsitewhose proceeds go this poor village and stuff. we turn down this dusty street and drive straight into a steven king novel. or maybe the hills have eyes, or the hills have eyes 2. there are shanty mud, zinc, or entirely-made-entirely-out-of-soup-can huts, with kids running around selling big hunks of quartz, amethist, fluorite, malakyte. everywhere we went, hunks and hunks of rock. unless you're my brother when he was 8 or my uncle geologist, why would anyone buy these rocks? i'm thinking, someone needs to bring a rock tumbler and a dremel kit into this joint and teach these people to make some beads! (hellooo aurelgrooves africa) seriously. we roll up to this campsite and it's majorly creepy. the reception is made out of old driftwood or something. i can tell robin wants to u-turn right on out of here. i insist we stay. look at the cool rock mountain! we pay our $5 and wander around to find a site to pitch our tents. the place is huge, sprawling. each site is at least 1 km from the next. some are nestled in rocks, others are under these big trees. they're actually all pretty neat and unique, we can't decide which we like best.
we drive around and see some rock paintings, robin is so over rock paintings. even if they're 5000 years old, he's all, whatever, doesn't do it for me. i don't like to see how they have been vandalized. it's like some idiot comes all the way out here to write "yer mom" on a 5,000 year old work of art wtf??
we go a little further around the mountain and see klipspringers, cute little rock hiraxes and more and more of those huge friggin' crickets. i do not want these things near my tent. we come to this chain rope in the mountain that leads up a steep slope of rock. we go up it and it's just a totally cool mountain of crunchy quartzy rock with huge boulders teetering on top. we're climbing all over, my sandals are gripping this rock i can defy gravity, and i end up in one valley and robin is in another, 100s of feet away. because of the echo we are talking as if we were in the car. "this is pretty sweet."
"pretty sweet indeed."
"look at that white guy down there with no shirt."
"he's totally sunburnt"
"pretty sweet."
we lounge a bit then go back to the reception with a goal of getting matches. we bought everything for our trip, stopped to refuel, re-fill our water jug and kept forgetting the darn matches. we find eddie, from the reception and he's all, oh, you have to go to the village for matches. we are not going to the creepy village eddie, someone here has to have matches. look, that guy is smoking a cigarette. and so he finds us a box of matches, we are happy.
we search some more for a campsite and found one nestled in the rock, like in a crevasse. there's a fire pit area and a counter top carved into the stone. and a little toilet around the corner, with tp, and a seat and everything. we can creep over the rock ledge and watch the sunset. perfect.
the sun sets quickly and we are soon in the dark, with a million stars overhead. i want to start cookin' and we look at the box of matches. i'll be damned! there are only 7 in there, and they're all used, except for 3. the first one goes out. we hold our breath, concentrate...come on...we need one match for tomorrow's breakfast. the second one breaks in half. dangit! this is it, or we don't eat...finally it lights and our gas is lit. i keep the stove going for a while to hard boil some eggs, which i plan on eating all week. i'm all about the hard boiled eggs.
some sort of rat thing tries to run off with the lid to our pot. he drops it halfway to his lair and it makes a loud clanging noise, scaring the crap out of us. what's up with all the thieves??
we are in our tents by 7pm - campin' style. throughout the night i have nightmares of leopards and elephants coming, but nothing but those darn crickets. i have to pee but i'm scared of the crickets. they are surrounding my tent the next day like they are avenging the death of their cousins on the highway.
in the morning, i wake up and run to the rock ledge and see zebra tracks everywhere, more hiraxes (sooo cute!) and a wonderful sun rise over the savanna. we had an elaborate plan to light our half match to get some tea and oatmeal going. it will take me 5 days to realize that roibos tea doesn't have any caffeine in it. mutherf%$$^.
i go back out to my ledge, and see this splendid view. but i still get blackberry reception. we are not far enough out of town!

Thursday, June 12, 2008


well that was just crazy.
here's a little news to tell you what i was up to, then i can fill you in the details. btw, we waited on this guy rodrick the journalist for a few days to follow us on the count, and then he said he didn't want to camp, and bailed. still wrote the story, which horribly misquotes everyone and get many facts wrong...but i wuz there, man!
and it was awesome.

Namibia begins world's largest census of animals
By RODRICK MUKUMBIRA, Associated Press WriterWed Jun 11, 6:16 PM ET
The world's largest land-based census of wildlife began Wednesday across a huge swath of northwestern Namibia, World Wildlife Fund officials said.

The annual animal census, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, came as the American agency prepared to announce that it is ending conservation funding in Namibia a year earlier that previously planned.

Wildlife in Namibia has increased since the U.S. agency began funding community conservation programs in 1993. To date, the United States has given $41.6 million to programs to help people care for natural resources and benefit from the tourism generated.
"Only a few years ago, local people viewed wildlife only as competitors for food with their goats and other livestock and as potential dangers, but all that has now changed," said World Wildlife spokesman Chris Weaver.

Weaver, whose organization manages the U.S. funds, said the conservation programs allowed animal species to flourish and made poaching "virtually extinct."

He said conservation efforts since 1995 had increased Namibia's lion population from 30 to 130, dramatically raised the number of cheetahs, and nearly doubled Namibia's black rhino population. Namibia had about 7,500 elephants in 1995, but now has 26,000, he said.
Teams of game scouts, conservationists and scientists expect to find even higher numbers this year as they fan out to count elephants, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, oryx, giraffes, mountain zebras and springbok on 16 million acres of wildlife reserves.

Besides conserving wildlife, U.S.-funded programs in Namibia have generated income from tourism, creating 946 permanent and 6,200 part-time jobs, Weaver said.

U.S. officials planned to announce the cancellation of funds in Windhoek on Thursday. U.S. government spokesman Raymond Castillo would not comment on why the funding was being cut, but said the program had been tremendously successful.

Friday, June 6, 2008

panda wuz here

was walking around today after work and saw this. the wwf logo - namibian graffiti style. those crazy environmentalists! not bad. gorilla marketing? huh. huh.

do i look like the kind of girl who likes to sing songs?

so there's this hiv cartoon poster i was reading in the bathroom. it's this guy mbdankta in a small village and he's all psyched cuz his girlfriend is coming home (he receives a letter and there are lots of floaty hearts all around his head). in the next box: a cloud with !!! above his head!!! he needs condoms!!!
so he goes to a bunch of clinics and each one doesn't have any, then he goes to visit his buddy akbar because akbar aaaalways has condoms, cuz he really gets with the ladies. but akbar says, no man, i had a craaaazy weekend! so them mbdankta is all oh, this really sucks, i will have to find something else to do with my girlfriend. what will we do? hold hands? go for a walk? sing songs? play a game? and so when he sees her he says, i'm sorry i don't have any condoms, "maybe we can sing songs instead?" and she's all, songs?do i look like the kind of girl who likes to sing songs? i'll give you something to sing about...and pulls out a whole bunch of condoms. and they are both happy.
i can find at least a few things wrong with this story...
anyway, we're packing supplies for our trip and all we have are big cardboard smile condoms boxes. teehee. seriously, our truck is going to jam packed with these, what will people think?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

windhoek...kinda boring

so windhoek is indeed really neat, according to the guide book, but i don't have time to do anything because it's work work work! and prepare for our big trip next week. though i did get invited to a cool bbq at this one guy's house who lives in a glorious multi-level house that he rents cheaper than my apartment in dc. i could live here.
but still, they are slave drivers. they put the mozambiquans to shame. i don't even go out to lunch, i just eat bread and yogurt that i steal from breakfast at the hotel.
so i don't really have any stories to tell, i'm just going to show you a few pictures that i have.

this is my room at the pension uhland. doesn't it look super cute and german? i wish i had a picture of the big black fuzzy cat. only annoying thing is the big aviary outside that has a lot of chirping birds that don't let me sleep. and they keep setting off the motion sensor light so all night it's
i watch roland garros on the telefunken.
this is bbq guy's really small dog. note the scale - you can compare his size to my foot (women's size 6.5). this is right before i punted him into angola.
this is a typical windhoek street. pretty nice! looks like california or something. there are also very, very few clouds.
this is the view of a windhoek sunset (looking east tho).

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

culture shock in namibia

so it's still a little culture shock here in windhoek. i can drink the water! i can eat salad again! i don't have to carry wads of toilet paper around in my pockets! (i just got my cargo shorts back from the laundry...what a mess). hey, it doesn't mean i don't like roughing it, people... it's just weird to think that only a few km away, over the border is such a completely different environment (e.g. angola, zimbabwe).
the only thing i'm not prepared's f-ing cold! it is winter, afterall. at night it gets rrreal chilly. like 50s. i have a fleece and a sweater, but i'll need a hat and some thick socks or something. i can only imagine what it's like in the desert up north. so i'm going to have to do some shopping. robin, my canadian colleague here (and old friend from mcgill) found a store called "beaver canoe" that he wants to check out, we suspect it might originate from america's hat. canadians, always sticking together.
so last night we ate dinner at joe's beerhouse, which is just a short walk away. it's a crazy maze of picnic tables, trees, fireplaces, animals heads...and bottles of jagermeister. the sign at the door says "the house wine is....JAGERMEISTER. drink up!" the fireplaces were all glowing and warm, just like the atmosphere. i drank a tofel and a beer shandy, and for my meal, ordered some springbok. this is a springbok, fyi:

this may have been one of the tastiest meals ever. it was a brochette of the most tender, flavorful, perfectly grilled meat (sorry, dad!). better than duck! it came off the skewer with ease, and melted like butter in my mouth. in between these tender morsels, bacon wrapped figs, mmmm. all of this accompanied by these large balls of butter corn fritters delicately pan fried to keep their shape and asparagus and cauliflower with some sweet chutney on it. simple, deelish. robin had the oryx steak, which was also tasty and we are planning on working our way up to zebra, which, according to the menu is a "man's meal."

goodbye mozambique, hello namibia!

i finished my 2 weeks in mozambique with one more night in maputo. i landed with a few hours of sunlight left, eager to explore this urban delight. the sky was already turning golden as i raced around the streets in a brisk walk.
i saw some kids with kites made out of garbage bags, just like the one i bought in northern neck and played kite runner with. there was a boy with a monstrous pile of VHS tapes in those plastic cases like they have (had) at the library. he was selling them for 50 cents each. there was a small mob arguing over a copy of rocky III.
it was friday rush hour, so hustle and bustle. pretty nice. finally, as darkness lingered i raced back to my hotel for safety, and a fantastic 7 hours of internet, catching up on emails, bills, fixing my mp3 player (yes!! finally), deciding to go to congo after namibia??
the hotel insisted i get a taxi at 5am for my 7am flight the next day. i woke up after only an hour sleep at 4:30 to take a shower. the water was hot for two seconds and then freezing cold. this went on for 10 cycles until i finally gave up. this has been THE trip of cold water showers, from before i left DC, when my hot water heater conked all the way until now. all. cold. showers. argh. i got dressed and headed down to the reception and let them have an earful. i'm not sure where it came from, maybe the beehive that has become my hair but i let out the most fantastic porto-spanglish i have ever heard.
i was all, 3 star hotel, eh? more like NO stars! the concierge guy was verrry apologetic. he offered me another room, yeah, thanks, that's really useful now.
it was dark, really cold, and i get into this beat up old car that has SPRINTER written on the side. there are no headlights, lots of metal hitting metal sounds where the wheels and engine are, and what looks like the result of a horse vs. windshield accident: windshield lost. he's telling me how it's the worst time to drive, that everyone is drunk from their friday night. indeed, i see a lot of swerving cars, people running red lights and running into sidewalks. cool.
the street names are all karl marx ave, stalin street, lenin road and east timor ave. huh?
the driver puts on his seat belt, first time i've ever seen one in use. very dangerous! he says, and i don't know if he's referring to the streets or his own car, where safety isn't exactly paramount. we pass some kids making a huge bonfire on the sidewalk where there was a fruit market the day before.
we come to an intersection with a dude totally naked except for a ratty t-shirt that just barely hides his privates. instead of feet he has ankle nubs to which flip flops are tied with a thick string. like peg legs. how does this guy manage to stand? i'm impressed. he approaches the taxi and starts screaming flailing his arms wildly. we get a nice little peep show. maputo style!
during the rest of the trip the driver comments on how dark it is, how early it is, how well he is driving and i'm agreeing, yes! indeed! claro que si! what i realized at the end is that he was justifying the reasons to raise the cost of this trip. i had unknowingly talked myself into a $20 cab ride. eh, it's still dark out, i'm tired, the airport isn't actually open so i have to sit on the sidewalk...i don't actually don't care, dude. i still had a wad of mets and no discoteca to spend it in. whatever. goodbye mozambique!
and hello namibia! what a delightful surprise! the airport is clean, shiny, a working conveyor belt and these cute little carts. my cell phone works. with email. a driver with a shiny corolla is waiting for me. the airport parking lot looks like the new one at charles de gaulle. this is weird.
we drive through a desert landscape that looks a lot like the causse mejean. there are lots of road signs for towns, narrow shoulders, passing lanes. they are all written in the curvy sans serif font on bright clean signs like you see in france. we drive into windhoek and there are no crazy homeless people, just clean streets, smiling people, bright modern buildings...are we still in africa? seriously.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


getting used to life without email, lights, dishwashers, alarm clocks...we wake up real early with the sun around 5, in bed by 9. whenever the generator turns on everyone comes out of the woodwork with their phone and laptop chargers. for the first few days there was only one outlet working and it was a giant mess of extension cords, knotted cables and phones and blinking lights everywhere. i so thought i was going to get electrocuted. electrocuted on an island with no electricity!
it's ironic that across the street is a giant building with "central electrica" written on it. the last time it worked was in the 80s. yeah, more like the 1880's.

it's also ironic that on an island with no cars or lights, there's a "no jaywalking" sign in the main plaza that says to only cross when the light is green. this is downtown ibo:
our dinners at the hotel are family style with the owners and other guests, which include this couple from the bay area who really wanted our honeymoon suite. haa haaaa. we sit surrounded by kerosene lamps and figure out if the hotel should get a goat and chickens and serve fresh milk and eggs. or maybe a crocodile. something cool that eats garbage. so...goats.
so in the early morning we do real work: we head out on the water the some local fishermen. on the first day we set out 20 wicker fish traps -all homemade and amazing 0 inside and outside the fishing sanctuary. no need to use a gps, the fishermen know exactly where to put the traps, so they are eagerly diving in, doing most of the work while we sit in the boat and eat peanuts and laugh. the next day we pull up the traps, see how many fish are inside, measure them. if we're inside the sanctuary, tag the fish and let them go. if we're outside, the fishermen get to take the fish home. plus they get a small pay, and they are seeing the positive results of having a sanctuary, so they're very excited about the work (not excited about letting fish go. they usually look at these huge fish and get the little dollar signs in their eyes going "cha-ching!"). alice says the fish inside the sanctuary are poisoned, and that you have to let them flush it out for a while before you can catch them. that's her way of saying wait for them to get bigger!
there are loottts of spacious smiles, as most of the fishermen have no teeth. they wear these really ratty clothes, like one guy, whose shorts and underwear were ripped right across his ass. you could see everything. and i mean everything. so alice got them uniforms: these silly sailor boy outfits, navy blue and white with the little knot in front and flap in the back. so weird.
we have to keep all the gas for the boats under lock and key in a big empty building that is the park office, or else it will be stolen. and we have to be real careful about who goes in there, always need a watchdog to make sure they don't skim from the top. we put tick marks to make sure the levels are the same the next day. already, one guy knows about our stash and came asking for gas for his home generator. his home generator powers that annoying disco music we hear every night. sorry senor! he insisted he was an important man from the opposition party. sorry senor! ask your party for gas!
yesterday afternoon alice took me for a long walk to see a friend, a woman who lives in a hut with a dirt yard surrounded by a bamboo fence. she brought out some chairs for us while she sat on a mat with her grandchild on her lap. there were goats, chickens, garbage. i was trying to imagine living like that, with so little, spending your day preparing food and doing daily chores. it's sortof like camping...but...i imagine without the glory. there was a young girl there, who was washing clothes in a bin, and just hanging around playing with dirt and an old carboard box. i wonder what she was thinking about, how is each day different? does she ever get bored?
then we walked around the town some more and met some kids who surrounded us in awe. this little girl in a ripped dress jumped into my arms and clung to me like a little monkey. it sortof made me sad. alice knew immediately, "don't cry!"
then we walked some more to the fort at the end of the island. a big white star shaped thing i've seen on the satellite images. inside were a whole bunch of guys just sitting on the ground, banging, bending and soldering silver. silversmiths! they find old portuguese coins and make the most intricate delicate amazing jewelry. alice definitely knew i would love this place. i learned a little bit from the guys, watched them melt silver into little balls and chain links using a tube, they blow air into this hot flaming oil can thing. crazy. alice bought me a beautiful pair of earrings and i picked out 2 more, for less than $10. i could have bought the whole store. they wrapped them in torn pieces of hiv pamphlets, which are everywhere here. "Q: my baby is not gaining weight. A: your baby might have aids." sigh.