Tuesday, August 31, 2010

greetings from space, oberpfaffenhofen

so my first impression upon arriving at DLR (the deutsches zentrum for luft und raumfahrt, i.e. German Aerospace Agency) was wow, so many nerds.
my second impression, wow, they're actually quite attractive! all these young cute girls and guys with fashionable haircuts, no tattoos, who don't smoke and have good jobs! - a very stark cotrast to berlin.
3 non-stop days of meetings with aerial data experts, radar gurus, geo-physicists, engineers, 4 screens for every computer, i was a veritable child in an unbelievable candy store.
the weather was perfect, a glimpse of the alps over the tiny airport, the cafeteria simple and subsidized, i could die happy here.
the highlight however, was when my host bartered a paid lunch for some young cute girl with multiple ear piercings to give me and a colleague Martin a guided tour of the columbus center, which houses the control room for the TanDEM X mission: a new satellite was launched in June and caught up with TerraSAR-X, resulting in 2 synchronized radar satellites that collect in unison 20 minutes apart for interferometric data for detailed elevation data, as well as high resolution imagery that allows us to map cities and fences, as well as detect ships day and night pretty much anywhere in the world! and other cool stuff i won't bore you with. speaking of boring, standing at big windows overlooking the people in the windowless rather empty control room staring at computers with graphs and blinking squares was nothing to write home about. across the hall however, was a whole different story. this was the command for the ISS (International SPace Station, formerly MIR).
at 9:30 am, we just happened to catch the crew upon wake-up (slackers) - the daily schedule of all 6 astronauts displayed on a giant outlook calendar on a movie screen - every minute planned with acronyms, meeting, meals, exercise. there were black and white lines indicating when their day and night are, i guess they are in a superspeedy orbit where days are only 6 hours long. another screen showed a map of the position, somewhere in the southern pacific.
The live feed camera screen was blank, we were kinda bummed but there was plenty of other stuff to look at and talk about, like how they don't call it Oberpfaffenhofen, but Munich, for short, and how the common language on the station is russian, not english.
there was some screen with error messages which sounded scarier than they were.
some smartly dressed dudes clicked keyboards and talked into their headphones. i imagine what they tell their girlfriends at the biergarten later that evening, "yeah, i played chess with some guy on the ISS today." i messed around with a screen displaying an interactive 3D simulation of the iSS when suddently, the video feed turned on.
our guide says, yeah, i've been working here for a year and I've never seen anything interesting on the video.
a tiny speckle appeared and our faces were pressed to the glass, this could be interesting.
soon the speckle turned into a glow, and them a glimmer, and then a faint arc, with blue, clouds - dude, is this the sunrise over planet earth?
yup.
solar panels and other spacey stuff slowly showed up, first glowing red, then yellow. neat-O. our guide girl wants to stay, so we watch some of the activity below. i mentioned how my dad thinks space station science experiments are pretty much at a 2nd grade level. that didn't go over well, so then i asked about space farts.
next, another video panel went on, displaying some wall with bunches of storage and a computer.
we were on our way out, congratulating ourselves on the luck we just had when wait! i think i just saw a ponytail zoom by screen 3. we wait a few minutes more and low and behold, some buff female astronaut is talking offscreen, making hand motions while her gold chain necklace gently floats around her neck.
i ponder the conspiracy theory that maybe, she's actually just on a 747 doing nose dives above the utah desert but woah, there goes another guy, zooming through the screen like he is roller skates.
the girl comes back, her pony tail pointing awkwardly horizontal like pippi longstocking. this has to be real. a suitcase of sorts starts floating up and she bats it out of the way.
this is probably the coolest thing i've ever seen. guidegirl agrees. for the next 2 days i am bragging to everyone how i saw the astronauts and no one believes me - because no one ever sees the astronauts.
do space farts smell like earth farts?

Monday, August 30, 2010

lunch bavaria style

one day in munich,we were walking to the cafeteria for lunch, when this nice woman i was talking radar with decided we would go "somewhere nice."
i climb into her tiny VW polo with one of her assistants, and we proceed on a wonderful hour-long guided tour of the lakes of southwest munich. we glide through little villages with green grassy fields with the alps in the background - it seems made up.
we arrive at a larger lake and decide between one of the 3 idyllic biergartens on the shore. there's a guy grilling big troutlike fish heads and all on big silver skewers that go from mouth through tail (i found out it's called stecklerfish). he shows me a picture of his aquaculture farm. i pick the fattest one. and a giant pretzel twice the size of my head. the fish is served in wax paper with a teeny tiny useless toothpick like fork thing. we sit at a bench on the water, an unusual strong wind blowing hair into my mouth. i don't care about my hair, i'll eat it too, this is delicious. moist, salty, garlicy, parsley-y, everything falling off the bone.

shhhhhtecklerfish!
a bunch of guys, all over 50 are showing off their windsurfing skills, waves sparkling, glistening, DLR lady is telling me about the glacier that once covered the mountains there. the assistant guy has never been outside munich. is this the best lunch ever?

Friday, August 27, 2010

it's friday! that means herring party!

if you happen to be in scandanavia on a friday, i highly recommend you drop whatever plans you have and make it over to the best party this side of the Öresund: Nyhamnsläge herring night (weather permitting).


get there early, seats fill up. i recommend the picnic table closest to the water.
BYOS: bring your own schnaps. or, if you are my family, bring multiple varieties of your own schnapps in tiny bottles, white wine and beer (chasers). it's a good thing we came by bike.
also, we are classy types who always travel with our own table cloths.
wander up to the grill where these friendly gentleman grill up some very fresh perfectly cleaned herring filets.  
for 30 krona they serve them on a slice of dark brown nutty bread with butter and you pour this delicious mustardy sauce on it and red onions from a giant bowl that make your eyes water just looking at them.

open face herring samwich
if you're feeling adventurous, try the pickled herring, or if you're not into fish, a nice hot dog smothered in fried onions.

better than what they serve on the scandlines ferry
my dad drinks for the tigers!
it's a fundraiser for the harbour, i heard. i'm willing to support a floating kids table for herring night.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

who knew?

that sweden has so many varieties of tiny tomatoes
tomatoes for all!
and things in tubes 
(yes, i am kicking myself for not buying the tube of squeezable bacon flavored cheese).
totally tubular. also, this is a special open refridgerated tube display.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Grüne Soße (green sauce!)

the first time i told my berlin aquaintances i was going to frankfurt, i was bombarded with a string of expletives interspersed with "boring" "ugly" and "never go there."
on the other hand, those that live in frankfurt kinda like it. i can't really blame them, it's one of these places that isn't paris, but makes the best of what it has. there's an ok river, the Main, on which Frankfurt provides a kebab boat. where you have little german tudor houses, frankfurt gives you ample apple wine and meat. and where you have potatoes and eggs, you have GREEN SAUCE.
the first time i saw green sauce it was in a cafeteria and there was a few gallons of it behind a sneeze guard. i was skeptical and passed it up for the sour cream-like white cream. boy do i regret not putting my face in it like i was bobbing for apples.
it has a bunch of herbs and stuff, i don't know, but a very legit frankfurter made some with his mom's recipe and brought it to my house for dinner last weekend. when no one was looking i dipped my finger in it. i also put pertzels in it, pita chips, eggs, bread, risotto, anything edible. probably could have put wet newspaper in it and loved it. it all tastes good because green sauce is SO good.
at the end of the very long night of wine drinking we were cleaning up and i so cleverly dumped the remaining green sauce contents into my tupperware and slid it into the fridge for later. unfortunately, it was cheap german supermarket tupperware and when it slid of the shelf it exploded its contents on the floor.
oh no! the green sauce!!
i will not tell you if i licked it up off the floor.
make fun of me if you will, for liking expensive, boring, lame-o frankfurt, but i don't care what you say because as long as there is green sauce, i LOVE frankfurt.

Monday, August 16, 2010

travel complaints

the next time you complain about travel, just be happy you're not a passenger for multiple days on one of these:

or these:
or this thing:
at least these ones have toilets:

Thursday, August 5, 2010

ladies only

being a woman in africa is no easy thing.
basically, you are meant to churn out kids (probably starting from the age of 11), and cook, and that's about it.

i've written about poo, peeing, vomiting, now let's talk about something of the female persusion and a little more sensitive - guys, look away, cover your eyes, go talk about chicks and cars or something. this is about menstruation.
let me preface this with the fact that i have always noticed that unlike any other trip where your baggage becomes more and more unbearable and cumbersome over time, when i travel to congo my bag alwyas gets smaller and smaller. sure, i give stuff away, and yeah, i guess i lose things, but really, in the end everything just gets selectively removed.
but it's nothing to worry about, theft is not about valuables, more about necessity. they won't take your laptop, because they won't know what to do with it (no one has outlets)...but a flashlight or cell phone better be locked up. your fancy patagonia fleece isn't that vulnerable, just watch out for your shoes and socks. they will never take your camera, just your toilet paper.
and so it was, the feeling of a lighter bag is a good thing right? until that day of the month came, i searched confidently in my bag for my well planned stash of tampons and maxipads.
GONE.
fuuuuuuuuuuuudge.
i'm travelling on a tiny speedboat for 2 days on the congo river with 4 dudes. we stop like, once every 5 hours at villages that consist of huts. i have a total of 400 congolese francs on me (that's less than 40 cents. don't even get me started on the economics of this trip, and how all my budgeted money was spent in one day covering for johannes, i am pretty iritated at being poor).
oh, and it is pouring rain and everything i own is either soaked in sweat, rain, or covered in gasoline.
oh, and i'm piss drunk on palm wine that i've been sipping out of a recycled beer bottle.
not a happy camper
i ask ino to borrow money he's all, what do you need, i'll buy it! you want some beer? he buys beer and hands me one.
this is not good.
recall that we are stopping in hut villages, that with the rain now are muddy hut villages. in one village, i asked a guy if i could use his toilet. he brought me to his hut, and showed me to the corner in which i could pee, in front of his family and his ducks.
i wonder what the female residents do with thier monthly task...this is more mind boggling than indonesian turlets.
i am back in the boat, i sit uncomfortably and sip my palm wine, pondering gender issues when we stop in the town of bolobo to spend the night. i am drunk, hungover, tired, and still entirely soaked and cold from the earlier rain, and quite ready to be done with this endless bumpy boat trip (i am actually looking forward to a cold brown shower in dusty hectic kinshasa?).
we check in with the missionaries, get hassled by the CGM and then wander off into the town in search of food and booze. we find a little bar with really loud music that also just happens to be a pharmacy! what luck! everyone sits in plastic chairs and orders beer and peanuts and i make an excuse and sneakinto the little store.
as a mondele, it is impossible to do anything without being followed by at least 10 children so they all join me in the pharmacy to watch. this is SO embarassing. i have a hard enough time buying tampons at the supermarket, this is something entirely different.
i scan the shelves which are full of malaria medicine, eye drops and other stuff and finally notice a box that has the same color and design at those always brand maxi pads, but the text is in chinese. i point to those, i'll take one.
my little audience chatters in response and all the blood rushes to my face. the pharmacy guy opens the carboard box with an exacto knife and pulls out a large handy plastic carrying case of what seem like adult diapers.
oh no oh no, these are from the 80s, or what comes out of those automatic machines in airport restrooms. i want to die. just imagine me walking up to the guys at the bar, with my little plastic suitcase, hey guys i just bought these, thought they might come in handy!
i negotiate a purchase by the unit, which means the guy opens the package and pulls a thick pad out, clearly showing me the blue medicinal strip and then waves it around, using it for emphasis as we do business. everyone is talking, yelling, i can feel my heartbeat in my face. it's hot, i'm sweating, i want to crawl under a rock and die.
i look in my wallet and realize i don't have enough cash and really need to turn up the bargaining. we argue and argue back and forth, i offer euros, my phone number, he then displays the wings for extra protection and squeezes it to demonstrate the absorbency, I'm half expecting him to pour blue liquid on it like in the commercial. somehow we come to an agreement and i get a package of tissues thrown in with a deal i can afford. yes! 
as it turns out they don't actually have the tissues, someone will bring them to me in the bar. the perfect alibi for when i get back to my colleagues and someone asks me what took so long! i stuff 2 thick diaper like items into the pockets of my cargo pants saddle up to the plastic table and down some beer.
momentarily, a little boy brings me the tissues and i thank him and confidently wave him away.
so i spent about 20cents on one rather thick diaper.
let's now imagine i'm a shy 14 year old girl who has no income whose family lives in a thatch hut a can barely afford enough manioc to feed my 6 siblings. it's no wonder they stole my tampons, that stuff is luxury.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

chunky

video

bolobo

oly shit bolobo. descending the congo river in our speedboat, it's getting dark so we pull into a harbour that is dominated by rusty shipwrecks, one of them an overturned large canoe-like thing with a tree growing out of it, guarded by military guys. Dodo the boat driver urges me to put away the camera. the sounds of children and people are emanating from all over this village. we jump out of the boat, everyone forgetting to remove their bright orange life vest which only adds to the perception that we are aliens. we leave Dodo to guard the boat and head to the missionary place to check if they have room.

we walk up through the village, leading a parade of children. we pass the trait d'union, former bar turned convenience shop, and the humble abode of kingboy.
trait-d'union
kingboy lives here
we arrive at a serene missionary establishment with goats and chickens and they serve us cold beer while we wait for our rooms. we are repeatedly made aware of the rules: NO COUPLES.
i gladly accept my single room, letting the guys duke out their bunk beds.
We go back to the boat and get intercepted by the CGM, who was apparently notified by the priest (jerk). it's a guy in a cardinals jersey and his assistant in uniform with a 70s briefcase. they hassle us, rather rudely that they were inconvenienced by our unannounced arrival. we make them follow us to our boat.
we find Dodo managing well. he's apparently used to this, living, sleeping on the boat, guarding it from thieves. i ask him if he needs anything, and no, he's already managed to get a beer and dinner, and is giving himself a shave.
we grab our stuff, bid farewell to dodo and walk back up the hill. the CGM assistant guy is now eagerly asking for my number, but at the same time hassling us for money. where is the logic? we tell the main guy that we see through his bullshit but he argues that he is very important, and has a lot of work dealing with visitors, and he stops, instructs his assistant to open his suitcase to show us a wrinkled picture of a white guy with sunglasses. this guy is a very important belgian from kinshasa, and of course we know him, because we are white therefore we know all the white people in kinshasa. cardinals puts the picture back in the suitcase like he won this round and continues to follow us as we completely ignore them.
we get to the missionary and our tactics no longer work, we can't shake these guys. we finally give them our passports and lead them to our room and leave them while we drink 12 more beers in the courtyard.
they scrutinze every detail of our papers and passports, write stuff down and call people but they got nuthin'. meanwhile, we're drunk and hungry.
the missionary guy promises that our dinner will be ready in one hour, at 830pm. we are very hungry and from previous experiences where my colleagues went dinnerless at this place they don't believe him and we start to exit the compound in search for some famous bolobo grilled fish. but the missionary argues, ok dinner at 815 pm! geert presents a challenge:
we will go eat some fish and return at 9pm and if the dinner is on the table then we eat and we will pay for it.
if we return at 9pm and dinner is not ready, then we will wait and eat it and will not pay for it.
the aspiring priest thinks for a minute and hesitates, ok.
i asked geert what's the deal and he answers, "this is africa, you need to bet on two horses" and it makes sense.
we walk in the absolute pitch dark towards the nighttime fish market.
this place is nutso. there's no electricty, just candles, people, fish. it smells like fish. it's dark. the most wonderful part is that it is so dark no one knows we are mondele and we can walk through and mingle unnoticed. big fish, small fish, smelly fish. geert negotiates something with yves, one of the missionary boys, but i am too much in awe of all the fish hacking, yelling, singing, pushing, to notice. we meet up at the bar and instruct the aspiring priest to get our fish grilled and deliver to the bar. he eagerly embarks on his mission.
we get drunk, i deal with the pharmacy (story to follow), and a few beers later, our fish still hasn't arrived.
we ditch the aspiring priest for our dinner appointment. we're actuall 30 minutes late and dinner has just been served. we are hungry and won't argue technicalities. i sit down to eat and find one of the other missionary guys hitting on me. wtf, aren't you guys supposed to be celibate?
we talk to a doctor who rattles on depressing statistics about malarial deaths which outnumber hiv cases. johannes and i tell priest and rabbi jokes. hours later, we're about to go to bed and in comes yves, whom we had ditched at the market and totally forgotten about. your fish! it is uncooked. we specifically instructed him to cook the fish, and this was hours ago, what have you been up to since then?? geert lambasts him. we give the fish to the cook and go to bed. yves bows his head in shame, but along with his buddies follows me to my room and watches me undress through the curtains, and eagerly invite me to morning mass. oh don't worry, we will make sure we skidaddle before services!
at 6 am the sounds of bells emanate from the bell tower of the church. but these are not real bells, this is a recording of the vatican bells, but played at the same volume as the bar music, which means scratchy and barely discernible. i go to the restroom and hold my nose, and ultimately decide to hold my urge to pee or poop until we get to kinshasa.
goodbye bolobo.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

chunky update

i passed through the hotel reception voicing my daily contempt towards the staff concerning the treatment of chunky this morning. as usual, i manage to rouse a few of the other guests too, and the lady who counts the money (whom i think is the wife of the hotel owner) tries to ignore me, but has to listen. i vow never to return as long as chunky is in is cage, and declared that i will leave today for another hotel (i actually fly out of DRC tonight anyway). i also posted a real nasty review on tripadvisor (as if people actually choose kinshasa as a recreational destination...) 

this morning the staff sounded a little disappointed and countered "but we fed him on sunday when you were away! doesn't that make you happy??"
sigh.
a monkey eats all day, every day, he drinks water too.
they throw their hands up in the air, like they will never win.
i stare cruelly: you will be punished by your god.
johannes has found someone to take him. they can hardly say no to be relieved of the burden...we shall see.
i also found out that chunky really likes cucumber.

adventure to Ngiri, part II

we arrive in the dark at Ntondo. we can't find our way (there are no lights anywhere, nor roads for that matter, just huts and stuff) so we pick up a guy from the village to guide us. we have since lost the second car, the one that happens to have all the food, and our luggage. we sit quietly on the porch of our research station situated perfectly on the lake. there are fireflies, stars reflected in the perfectly still water.
we're starting to get antsy so we pay a guy with a motorcycle to go get us some beer. beer guy is gone a long time. geert laments the departure of the doctor and his very attractive wife who also cooks a hell of a meal. beer guy returns and we are happy. the other car shows up quickly after (they must have been attracted by the beer) and in the meantime i serve up some life-saving trader joe's mix.
we went for an amazing swim in the lake, the water was warm and it's very acidic, so good for the skin! i washed my hair and cursed my lack of conditioner and hair stuff which had previously exploded in my bag which foreshadows a coming week of thick knot hair.
i sleep in an afterthought bunk bed - it's like they had a bed that was kinda high up and then decided to put another underneath. there is about 2 feet between this bed and the one above and it has been decided that i am the only one who will fit there. i slide in my bed sandwich and sleep.
the house has walls that only go so high, not to the ceiling, probably for ventilation or something. but it means you can hear everything. so in the middle of the night when guard number 1 came in to do a number 1 you heard e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. i really had to pee but decided to hold it in.
in the morning we got up super early with the sun, had breakfast (peanuts and coffee) and i went for another swim. of course, all the local boys came to stare and 13 sets of eyeballs were popping out of their sockets while i undressed, what am i supposed to do, wear a burka? some fishermen came and fished right on the beach which in theory is supposed to be a reserve. i took pictures. they were super friendly and so incredibly proud of the miniscule fish they were catching with mosquito nets. you know you are killing absolutely every living thing in this lake and you won't have anything to eat tomorrow, right?
look at my teeny tiny baby fish, only 50 calories!
bowl o fish
i give a perogue a go and once again this is a spectacle - mondele in a perodgue! like they must think we whietys have gelatinous brains, eat nothing but bread and are incapabable of anything. like when you're eating grilled goat and people go "look at the mondele eating goat!" and laugh because it's hilariously weird to them.
crazy mondele, you can't pirogue!
everyone from the research station comes to the beach to board the speedboat, which clearly isn't there. Dodo the speedboat driver had left kinshasa a few days earlier and was meant to be here by now...and his cell phone is out of minutes (convenient)...so instead we put an engine the fancy perogue and conveniently outfit it with ubiquitous plastic chairs. i called dibs on the one with the words of praise to god. i was also seated behind the guy with the gun who would protect me in the event of a pirate attack.
off we go, and i take thousands of pictures of perogues. they are everywhere and they are so cool!
pirogue # 323

pirogue # 947
super loaded perogue # 1012 - (i would take nicer pictures if i had a better camera hint hint birthday in november)
we cruise down the lake, chatting, feeling the breeze and watching the mist lift and woah, 2 hours later lo and behold i still don't have to pee and there is our speedboat! we transfer our belongings mid-lake and off we go.
now we are 4 mondeles and 3 congolese (one heavily armed) in a speedboat that no local has ever seen or imagined before. everyone and anyone you pass stops what they are doing, stares and then starts waves madly and smiling. i am doing so much waving i feel like the pope.
every once in a while we need to add gas from the 11 or so vegetable oil canisters we have on board. we calculate that this boat burns more fuel and emits more carbon than the plane we took to Mbandaka. we will never speak of this gas consumption again.
we stop in crazy little villages with markets and more staring children. the kids all come to shore and just stare. they don't talk to eachother, or poke another's arm and talk, they just stare silently. if you look them in the eye, some smile and giggle, most of them run away in fear. woah, we're in the kind of place where white people aren't just different, they are scary.
a lady comes out of a hut with a small barely walking baby who takes one look at me and screams in terror like i am the baby eater all his baby friends have been telling him about. she is dragging the baby towards me and it is doing everything as baby-possible to escape but it's no use. she finally brings the baby to me and despite its every effort makes it touch me. this thing is screaming bloody murder, and once it touches me doesn't stop. she brings it back into the hut. touching a mondele is good luck, some people say.
more kids start to follow and if you turn around they freeze, it's like we're playing a schoolyard game. geert finds some ladies selling bananas and bread and we pick up lunch.
a self-important feeling man scuttles up with his little assistant and introduces himself as the CGM immigration service. these guys again. this village has 15 huts, probably 200 people, and there's an immigration service? he's demanding our passports as usual, and we just ignore him, drink a coke, chat with the people, trying to convert their frozen staring into thoughtful conversation. a young-ish lady named Fabiola shows me her house, and proudly talks about her kids and shows me the neighboring huts that stand empty since the war, the war being the whole mess last march. she keeps saying god sent me to her that she's so happy to meet me. thanks fabiola. geert likes to ask people what they eat, what they grow. and i look under a hut and see some ducks. we should eat some duck. good idea, geert says.
the perogue catches up with us and we go across the river and negotiate a live duck for dinner. thankfully it gets carried away in the the other boat so i don't have to stare into its vacant eyes for the next few hours.
more villages, tiny bananas and peanuts.
oubangui village
next we stop at the military base (no photos, hide your camera!!!!!) for more formalities (e.g. ass-kissing). this is an old belgian colonial site with overgrown busted up mansions and a large alley lined with tall palms, where our team was previously stuck overnight for refusing to pay a bribe - er, i mean 'immigration fee.' we once again give our passports to some very important people, watch them copy the numbersand hand our paperwork to dudes as we have been doing all day.
a lieutenant ambles up and introduces himself, along with his underling. geert vaguely ignores him by looking directly through him. these guys are most likely the ones who bombed our house. the lieutenant talks with his arms behind his back, waxing poetic about the cycles of war, and how things are destroyed, but that allows new better things to grow again.
geert says wearily "yeah, that's really great, papa, but we liked our house the way it was. would you like to build it up and make it new again for us?"
the lieutenant, realizes he is being indirectly accused walks off angrily. we get back into our boat and continue.
more villages, perogues.
we finally make it bobangui, it is now 32 hours since we left kinshasa, a trip our logistics guy said we could do "in a day no problem." ha.
arrival at base camp. there's our duck, whom we've named "dinner"
we are warmly greeted by the field team, and more guys with guns. we see the house, whose roof has clearly been burnt but besides the bullet marks on the outside, no evidence of rockets or grenades or any of that sort. this is a regular ole looting, folks. it's pretty obvious who are the mutherfuckers who did this. everyone knows the rebels (who are armed with little more than machetes), and local people aren't really the steal glass windows and shoot bullets in walls kinda type.
someone brings a plastic table and 4 chairs and we sit down to some peanuts and beer to ponder. oh, we will get them, we will win...and we will use our strongest weapon....the weapon of...conservation!? we each drink from our warm Turbo King beer and no one speaks as we listen to the overwhelming sounds of the peeping frogs and insects, who all seem to agree.

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
entree
baggages
sortie
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!