Monday, August 2, 2010

adventure to Ngiri, part I

when i came to DRC 3 years ago we had a workshop to identify the most biologically important areas to conserve and protect. one of these 62 areas is the Nrigi triangle, an area in northwest DRC surrounded by the Oubangui and Ngiri rivers and is home to swamp forest chimpanzees, elephants buffalos, and probably a lot of other stuff, but who knows. a few years ago the German government agreed to support the creation of the Ngiri biosphere reserve, and this is one of Johannes' projects.
Less than a year ago, a ranger/research station was completed in a little village called Bobangui on the shores of the Oubangui river. only 2 months later, in March 2010 a little tiff erupted between some rebels and the government military, all the villagers fled to the opposite shore in Republic of Congo, and we heard the Boubangui house was destroyed, the rumours running the gamut from a canoe-launched grenade to a missile attack, to hostile takeover by rebels.
johannes had already tried 3 times to visit the famous Ngiri river ecoystem he was to protect, and he decided ths time, he was going to make it. and so there it was, we would get to the ngiri river, whatever it takes. we would fly to Mbandaka or Ntondo, where another research station is, then take a boat to Boubangui.
the trip was planned 3 weeks in advance along with our belgium cohort and luckily, i secured a spot. a few days before our trip, our logistician, olivier, whose title implies full time assistance with logistics for just these types of trips tells me "there are no flights to Mbandaka this week" which is congolese for "i never made the reservations and all the flights are booked." so we decided to charter a plane to Mbandaka on wednesday, and take the new speedboat we just purchased from the swedish ambassador back down to kinshasa on sunday. we found 2 cute french pilots from Aviation Sans Frontieres to take us to Mbandaka. We picked up an extra passenger and haggled a bit so it was a little bit more affordable.
Flying from the N'dolo airport is one of my favorite things ever. First, there's the drive through kinshasa. in one neighborhood i noticed that every single lady on the street was carrying a huge bin of bread on her head. it was mystical. Geert, our belgian colleague read my mind and pointed across the street "La!." and there is the hq of the factory rthe soze of a city block where pretty much all the bread comes from. that place must churn out over 3 million large format hot dog buns (that's what they call bread) a day and distribute it through various sources, mostly, women's heads.
we get to the small domestic airport to begin the "procedures." these involve a series of doors, offices, whatever through which you must go through to travel to a destination that is not outside DRC. thankfully we were led by Ino, our congolese primate scientist who is the master of local procedure. he has a very african way of speaking ngala without moving his jaw while looking around, scanning the horizon, doing a million things like checking his watch or drinking a beer and without fail it passifies even the most eager of bribe seekers.
we enter the first "office," which is actually a shipping container. some money is exchanged, maybe for the airport tax. i hear my name mentioned, my passport passed around, forms filled out. what are we doing here? i ask ino.
we need to pay for the visa.
"but i already have a visa"
you need a visa for your visa
and i'm about to ask the logical next question as to why you need a visa for your visa and ino waves me away, irrirated, aurelgrooves stop asking stupid questions!
i retreat into the corner with my book.
we exit and enter the next office, and something similar happens, i am uninterested.
next door is customs. customs? we aren't leaving the country. don't ask questions.
there's a booth for locals, and one for foreigners. my name is called and i am summoned to the foreigner booth.
a very serious, borderline angry man asks what do you do, where are you staying. i answer diligently, back straight.
and your birthday?
dude quickly waves me into the booth, pulls out out the id card around his neck and demands "read here" and points to the same birthdate as mine. we are twins! he exclaims and hugs me. this is the most exciting day of his life. i want to tell him how cool it is to have a birthday around thanksgiving and then realize he doesn't celebrate thanksgiving and so we are talking, shaking hands, and then geert comes and knocks on the window and urges in his flemish accent, "eh papa, c'est pour aujourd'hui ou demain?" i get pushed out of the booth, back to business.
Geert gets asked the same questions, his answer "i am the capitan of Flanders, I am staying at the Ritz Carlton and my birthday is none of your business." as the guy is writing all this down i'm trying not to snicker at johannes, who is presuming the ritz carlton is the one between the Macy's and the movie theater.
next step is the hygeine station where a guy with a lab coat inspects you, i guess. all he really does is ask you for a piece of paper than ino has, and then whispers to his assistant who adds another hash mark to her sheet. this sheet is full of hash marks, she must have been keeping score since the day this place opened. the dr. double checks her work by gingerly putting on his glasses which are in his lab coat pocket. they are thick coke bottle glasses, entirely dirty cracked and broken there is no way he can see through them. he proudly waves me by.
the bar is a bunch of metal chairs that are falling apart, and the bathroom is more like a crime scene. we are taken to our truck with our luggage and drive out to the plane. the cute pilots are scanning us with the metal detector wand and are waving it in my face trying to make beep near my nose ring. geert meanwhile declares he is going to relieve himself "a la congolese" and is peeing on an abandoned shack.
we take off, the flight is not very exciting, mostly hazy. we land in Mbandaka which has nothing particular besides a UN building with lots and lots and lots and lots of barbed wire. the airport is an impressivly run down, empty structure with one door that says
the door to everywhere! there are people sleeping on different surfaces and a shoeless man at a table, reading the bible and intently making notes. he instructs us to wait. because all zero of the other passengers in this terminal also need to have their passports checked and this means a 35 minute wait. we finally get called into the CGM (immigration or something or other) office and 2 different people write my passport number down. i then realize that the top three congolese passtimes are:

1. sitting in plastic chairs
2. walking while making that despondent shuffling sound with flip flops (like my dad does with his slippers)
3. writing down passport numbers.

we are cleared and then escorted out to the parking lot which is full of armed soldiers. 2 are selected to escort us and thus begins the "formalities."
first visit is to the governor of Equateur province. he greets us in a room that tries to be the oval office in 1/10th of the size. there is a large fancy wooden table that takes up 95% of the room, the rest of it is filled with flags and those fancy boardroom office chairs. you come in the door and you can't move through the sea of chairs. i have a bag and i'm stuck between two chairs. a press guy is there, it's very embarassing. we all do our little speeches, happy to be here, we welcome you to our province, sorry your house got destroyed blah blah blah. the governor's cell phone starts to ring but he ignores it. it's playing the hokey pokey song.  finally he answers and we squeeze back out and buy some cool litchi-like fruit with long spikes from a lady outside. SO yummy.
back in the car, next stop, the real man in charge, the military colonel, who's people may or may have not bombed our house. the colonel isn't there, which would have meant an hour's wait but instead we meet his goofy deputy who has heavy dress shoes 5 sizes too big. same drill, passport numbers written down and he talks and winks at me a few times. he points to his vast empire on a map from 1963 and says he's in charge when the colonel is out. if the colonel knew about this he probably wouldn't be too happy. we then head to the office where we pick up fuel, and more guys with guns.
dirty map of DRC circa 1963

picking up fuel and guys with guns
we now have a 2 car convoy for the 4 hours drive to ntondo.
it's a bumpy dusty road through villages with kids running and screaming "mondele!" we run over quite a few chickens (man they're stupid). apparently, a chicken isn't a big deal but if you hit a goat or a kid you need to stop.
we pass a lot of awesome bicycles, packed to the gills with stuff.
we're driving really fast with guys with guns and so we seem really important. plus, not a lot of cars in these parts, so the guys on bicycles sortof freak out when we pass, it's a little sad. instead of just riding on the right and letting us pass they kind of disperse as if a helicopter is landing, feet come off of the pedals and they scatter in every direction and run off the road and crash into the bushes. they may have brakes, or maybe they don't know how to use them.
i want one of these bikes!
the windshield has a giant crack in it, and the place where the radio would be is empty.

rollin' rollin' rollin'
we stop at crazy markets like this one and the guy with the gun buys what we ask him to
geert starts singing flemish songs, meanwhile the military dude in the back is falling asleep and doing the violent head bob, but his beret manages to stay on. the way his gun is leaning on his knee makes the barrel point straight towards the base of my neck. we're hitting some nasty bumps and i'd rather not think about it. i'm sure that thing has a safety latch or something. he startles awake, looks at his gun and changes the ammunition cartridge. what was wrong with the old one? are you really allowed to sleep while we drive? have you ever shot someone?
aurelgrooves, stop asking stupid questions!

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