Saturday, September 17, 2011

Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes

Les sapeurs.

my coworkers took me out tonight, i thought it was going to be a concert but it was 100x better. it was a show by the sapeurs- the famous well dressed congolese: Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes. the group that has been hanging out together here, we call ourselves the  Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Un Peu Élégantes quoi. that's our new name because we inject ambiance anywhere we go, and we are moderately well dressed.

read about them here and here.
fantastic show with rhythmic tapping, dancing, and a guy dressed in paper who calls himself 100% papier. it was undescribable.

i was designated to go to the bar and buy a round of beers.
i order a tembo, they dont have it.
i order turbo dog, the next best thing.
but they don't allow glass in the theater area.
ok, so can i have 4 beers in plastic cups?
you have to buy a bottle
but you said no bottles
you have to buy a bottle that we pour into plastic cups
how big are the cups?
we are looking for them
<10 minutes> those are pretty small, give me one big beer into 4 cups
it won't be enough, you want 2 beers
um...ok fine.
the 2 beers end up being poured into 7 perfectly even cups.
how am i going to bring these back to our group? can i borrow a tray?
you can borrow temba.
temba is a guy in a tux. he brings the tray.
this is the greatest way to bring beers back to our seats. i go and sit down and everyone is all heeeyyy where are the beers? you were supposed to get beers! and i snap - temba! over here. niiiiice.

another night on the town

my days in kinshasa are numbered, so our little juvenile threesome is taking it up a notch. tonight we decided to go all bourgeois and get whiskey and sodas at the grand hotel. at 4 times the price, yes 4 times the volume of lunch we were pretty content. there's a nice little terrace by the pool and a 10 piece band that plays, note for note, this music:

next we went to a place that was essentially the set for Roadhouse. endless james brown from a crappy sound system, super smokey, wood paneled walls and strange leather banquettes. the first place i've ever been to here that serves club sandwiches and steak tartare. though the weirdest thing was people actually order the steak tartare. the spanish girl next to me was on her second plate (also called the cannibal's platter, which is a little too close to DRC for me) and told me how she had it yesterday and it was wonderful. wow.
there was also something else a little weird - i'm used to seeing the mixed congolese/white couples that often includes an exchange of money, but here they were all old white guys with young african boys. blech. though a little odd that it was so blatant, when we're in one of those "homophobia isn't a problem here because we don't HAVE any gay people!" on the way home the driver wasn't really seeing straight and so i was volunteered to co-pilot, meaning notify the driver of th vehicle for hazards. well it was like hosting an auction, there's a pothole there! there! and there!
and he would say too late! crash. too late! crash. too late! crash
and then it was street kid on your right! on your left! guy in a wheechair! guy wth no legs! three guys with no legs in a wheelchair! gaaaarhhhhhhh!

Friday, September 16, 2011

chile con carne?

Today i had lunch with the japanese. A while ago, I wrote to the Japanese aid agency because they had a project that overlaps one of ours and the guy wrote back and was all “you don’t remember me? We went to grad school together!” and I felt really horrible because I didn’t recognize his name, even if it was fuji yakashima and hiroshi majato, it’s all the same. because i'm so ignorant.

we decided to have lunch. My Japanese friend suggested the Cercle Gourmand, the really fancy french restaurant at the golf course. I didn’t want to go alone (and I really needed a ride) so I invited the loudmouth French guy, cedric, whom I’m working for at the ministry. I’ll totally go! He says, in his messed up hair and dusty jeans.

So we careen into the parking lot in a cloud of dust with our dented up pickup, and realize it’sone of those places were you get dropped off under the awning and a guy with white gloves opens the door. I asked cedric to drop me off at the awning but he said no.

We go in and it’s all classical music and oil paintings on the walls, and white table cloths and wine glasses. We’re just laughing and pointing at things, and I recall this is the place where I ate a duck salad with a former American governor 4 years ago and puked my guts out.
Anyway, we ask the host – there’s a host, I’ve never seen a restaurant in DRC with a host- if there are any Japanese people here and he says, yes, of course, the ambassador is right this way. And I’m thinking, really? They brought the ambassador? And I look at cedric, who’s sweating through his shirt and has a backpack and think this can’t be right. Then I see some asian dudes with ponytails on the patio and point – are those guys Japanese? Looks much more our style. they are.

I goof around with my 3 words of Japanese and we sit down amidst the foliage and sounds of parakeets. They get right to business. They have business cards, handouts, a giant map. Cedric is digging through his pockets for a pen and the Japanese guys are inquiring about the lunch special and there is some drawn out description, I’m not paying attending, I'm looking around at all the fancy people and what they are eating and when the waiter asks me, I just say, yeah, me too lunch special.

So we start talking, and sweating, the Japanese guys are wearing full suits, super rigid, radios on their belts (security) sitting straight up, occasionally answering their cell phones. It’s all rather surreal. The one guy baaaaarely speaks French or English, it’s super choppy incomprehensible accent and when I ask him what he thinks of Kinshasa, all I can make out it

“so very dangerous!....But!....Exciting!”

True dat.

So our meals come out, silver bowl over them and everything. White gloves delicately remove the cover to reveal a steaming…wait, is that chile con carne? Indeed it is. The beans were so undercooked I thought they were peanuts. And it cost the same as a monthly pass to a berlin gym. robbery. i thought the japanese would have paid but then i thought it's probably a cultural thing, or we weren't dressed well enough.

There were a few awkward moments but that was the jist of it. Cedric, as usual didn’t have any money, with his daily ritual “can I tax you 50 bucks?” and it basically blew my budget. Chile con f-ing carne? 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

getting stuff

a friend of a friend of a friend had some weed the other doesn't come in a little package here, it's a garbage bag. you basically get a whole dried bush of the stuff. your own tiny christmas tree. absolutely amazing.
then i started wondering about how one goes about purchasing this huge thing without anyone seeing you, white person, you probably stick out wherever they sell it but then i think duhhhh. you don't ever go get stuff here, there's always someone to go get it for you.
seriously, right now, there's a guy in brown pyjamas sleeping in a chair outside my room. i can wake him, show him a 5$ bill and say i want an unripe avocado and a baseball signed by mickey mantle and i swear he'll get it. that's how we got dry erase markers for the white board at the office. hey, papa, see this? i want four of them. in different colors. go. and voila.
buuuuut it's not only because i'm a cute white girl, i'm also madame petit dejeuner. you see at breakfast they serve you an entire loaf of sliced bread, eggs, bananas, juice boxes, it's way too much for a normal human. so i'll eat one piece of toast and then i'll make these wonderful little sandwiches - with butter, and salt, and you know, really made with love. and everyone gets one on my way out in the morning, the car washer, the gate guy with the baton, some guys at the office.
the bananas and fruit i save for the street kids at the intersection, especially the skinner smaller ones- only problem is they are starting to recognize our car and next week the driver is going to even more harassed- anyway, one day the hotel lady asked me what i did with all those sandwiches - as i'm apparently the only one who finishes their tray in the morning - and i told her.
and she looked at me like someone who has to pick up a dead bug "that isn't really done here" but in a more passive agressive way "ca ne se fait pas ici" like this is a sorority or something. so i ask half laughing, what they do with leftovers, ha, you throw them away? in the stinky open sewage canal? ben oui, of course.

the congo river

This morning there was a political rally outside our hotel so we thought it would be a good idea to go out for lunch a little further away. We went to "Chez Tintin", a little patio on a patch of grass on the congo river. We drank primus and ate our daily ration of roasted chicken with plantains and fries. there is this amazing view on the congo river that is as beautiful as it is troubling.

The river at this point is a series of massive rapids, waves 30 feet high, fast rushing brown water. On the river banks, which are now quite larger from the dry season is a strange mix of Congolese. On the one hand there’s the people from the shanty town who are washing their clothes or bathing in one of the pools, or the family rock mining activity- multiple generations, from 6 years old to grandma slowly hitting at rocks, carrying them away on their heads to sell on the road. And then the more well off people from kinshasa taking a stroll with their girlfriends and taking pictures on their cameras, and then us, the mondeles. The sound of the rushing water are almost overwhelmed by the clinking of the rock hammers – all of which are smothered in garbage. Burned aerosol cans, plastic bottles, flip flops and medical waste. It stinks. And this is the Kinshasa waterfront. 20 years ago this was the place to be.
i also made some new friends.
carrying rocks

team vodacom

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

the future of DRC!

these days i'm helping out at the ministry of environment in kinshasa. there's a new office and we are essentially setting up the future park system of DRC and these are the headquarters!

The place is a big ole villa with a busted up schoolbus in the courtyard and a boat up on pilons.
There’s a giant ditch out front you have to leap over to get in and I found the ditch is juuust a bit wide for one of my skirts.

leap of faith
Across the street is some foreign ministry where pimping black cadillacs (from 1982) show up with kids running after it. A bunch of guys in leopard print will get out – chiefs from the other provinces. One day they caught me staring at them, I was contemplating the leopard print caps and rattan pants and they blew kisses and waved. So cute. I could have been part of their harem.
normally, there are employees in our building, but i heard the bus that picks them up (is probably the one out front) and brings them here apparently broke down and no bus means no employees come anymore. there are a few stragglers, people who sit in empty offices at empty desks and take naps. whenever we pass the door that says “Information Technology” and has 3 people in it (only working a/c) even though there are no computers or servers or phones we keep telling ourselves, the future of the park system of DRC!
sometimes i'll walk around and say hi to the folks around and it makes everyone so happy. They look up from their bible or empty hands and say heeeeeyyy! Madaaaaame! My favorite was how the papa who cleans the place apologized to me for 20 minutes that he has been out for the past 3 days because he was at the other office getting a new broom, check out his broom. It’s going to clean now.

The copy machine is just outside. Next to the ministry, a bunch of guys on the dirt with a table and a big old photocopier on it. There’s a sign advertising "crystal clear"black and white copies. They plug in to the guy next to them who has a grid of outlets screwed to a board. And this board has a long extension cord that plugs in somewhere, probably the foreign ministry.

The street is rather nice to walk around, lots of impulse shopping (eggs from a box on my head? jeans? cds?) but the corner at the boulevard is treacherous, with aggressively begging kids. Even if you give them money they end up fighting over it and getting all mad, it’s awful.
So it’s apparently a phenomenon now, the street kid, or shege. They’re not even orphans, it’s like a woman will have too many kids, or kids with a new boyfriend and they end up accusing the kids of their previous relationship of sorcery, which i guess is the most socially acceptable grounds to kick them out of the house and they end up as one of the 30-40,000 street kids who hang around intersections and reach into your car. The worst is that a lot of these kids are no longer kids, when sheges grow up they don't go off to college and marry, they become angry, bitter, very violent teenagers who don’t think twice about punching you in the face in broad daylight. happens almost every day, so far, thankfully, to everyone but me. And that’s the reality of Kinshasa.

goat: it's what's for dinner

so i'm sorry there's no crazy field trips to write about this time, it's really just a week of work in kinshasa and the only time i go out is to eat.

i can't explain why we keep going out for asian food. maybe because the beloved indian place closed down, or the pizza places have too many mosquitos and prostitutes, or perhaps it's because of "5 chantiers!!" the rallying cry of mr. kabila - which are the 5 example construction sites in DRC, you see them on tv....and they are entirely run by chinese.

tonight we decided to try the place next door to the hotel, the one with chinese japanese korean asian fusion food painted on the wall.

there were 2 relatively happy goats tied up outside and the nicer one, well i scratched his chin and named him "yummy."

i immediately discovered the fantastic appeal of this restaurant - it's not the tables which seem to be lined with real ivory, but the bright red glowing button that adorns each of them.

what does this thing do? i press the red glow-BING BONG!- a giant bell sound echoes - in the dining room, which is actually not the room where all the waitresses are hanging out watching tv - and in kinshasa people only watch tv at one volume: all the way up.

anyway, they apparently respond as a few minutes later you can hear the s l o w flip flop shuffling and poof! a pudgy congolese woman squeezed into a kimono appears! 

every restaurant should have one of these bells!

the prices and menu are, as usual all over the place, from $4 for tempura, $13 for noodle soup, $24 for sashimi to $37 for a kilo of kimchi? who orders a kilo? and pictures of everything.

and hot towels? and glowing cases of mushroom wine and sake. the lunch special is 18$. this place is fancy.

we ordered a bunch of food and the waitresses wheel your stuff over (an hour later) on a wobbly metal cart. i guess this is fancy asian congo style. except that from the kitchen to the dining area there are at least 2 steps of varying height, so they are constantly struggling with this cart, lifting up one side, and so all you hear are dishes jingling, knocking over the teas and drinks. and then BING BONG the other table wants to order!
let's give them an A for effort.

and wow, this is really the only place where the food actually resembled the pictures. it was delicious and delicate and all i know is we kinda ran out of there when it was clear they messed up on the bill and undercharged us. thankyoumercigoodnight!

on the way out, there was only one goat.
so that's why the "pork" was so chewy, yet fresh!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

ils nous prennent tous pour des gros cons!

The other night we were talking about what it's like to live in Kinshasa, how you meet people, who are they, and I asked my co-worker about the NGO scene. Surely it’s easy to meet people in that circle? What about UN parties, medecins sans frontiers etc…?
well he let’s out this huge laugh and described that in the hierarchy of coolness of expats, WWF is apparently the bottom rung of the ladder. this was a total shock to me.

At that point a little musical interlude blooper reel cycles through my head, with images of the guys at the office loading stuff onto the roofs of vehicles, where they push more stuff from the back, the load ends up sliding down the windshield. Or the overweight quebecois guy with long hair and bulgy eyes whom you barely understand when he speaks French (it seems he only talks about mangwain, whatever that is), how there's never any toilet paper, and the we managed to destroy 2 boats in 2 days...etc...etc...
So i guess at the very top level of coolness you have diplomats, but you don’t really mingle with them unless you have a connection. Neither do you with the UN. They are overpaid, act like their shit don’t stink and if they are guys they spend half their salaries on prostitutes and if they are girls they are 22 years old and get their hair braided African style and just loooove Africa, omg it’s so great!

If there was still a peace corps here, they would probably come next, and then the NGOs. Though the ones building latrines walk some moral high ground over us, and since the rest of the conservation NGOs are apparently all run like they are on rails, and by prettier people, at the very bottom, well I guess that leaves us!

i was pretty bummed to find that out, but he ended it with, Aurelgrooves, don’t you know? “ils nous prennent tous pour des gros cons!”

another typical restaurant experience

so i'm working in a team with 2 other people, an american woman from wwfus who is staying at my hotel and a french guy based here. we've worked through the weekend. well, there's supposed to be another belgian guy but his wife put him on some sort of low-calorie diet and he's even slower than the typical belgian so we let him stay home.

the plan is to meet at 8am at our hotel cafe and whoever is there first orders our two alloted breakfasts withfried eggs, and one extra coffee and we all just split it.

it's kinda odd that the lady doesn't blink twice when i'm there all alone, ordering 4 eggs, 8 pieces of toast, 2 yogurts and 2 orange juices but she flips out when i ask for 3 coffees. TROIS CAFES??? we went through this yesterday do you remember?

at lunch on saturday we decided to try the chinese restaurant where no one ever eats at, but there's a nice patio. the kitchen is all Chinese, and the service is 100% consoles. chinese restaurants are for some reason extremely expensive, so we went with some appetizers and only TWO dishes for THREE people. we are very clear about this. we would like THREE plates and TWO dishes. she writes everything down.

if the waitress doesn't come back with the menu 5 minutes later it means they have all the ingredients for your dishes and order has succeeded.

she comes back 5 minutes later with the menu.

no sweet and sour pork.

so we have to ask - what are you missing, the pork? the sweet and sour sauce?

she has to go back into the kitchen, comes back as always walking real slow, with the shuffling of flip flops, no we order the beef.

a few minutes later she brings out a dish and places in front of us. we have no plates, no silverware, there's just this dish and it's not our appetizer. i'm sort of poking at it, looks like general tao's fish or something. smells like fish.

madame, what is this?

it's chicken.

it really smells like fish. it takes like fish. ok...

all our other dishes come out and we now have this extra dish.

where's the chicken with cashews?

there were no cashews so we put cucumbers.

cucumbers? who cooks cucumbers?

whatever, just eat.

we all had stomach cramps 4 hours later.

what's the same in kinshasa!

what's the same in kinshasa!

the luggage claim at the airport remains...a dazzling display of madness.

this time, i was lucky to be one of the first through customs (i chose the diplomatic passport line, hehehe), and got a spot at the front, but only to witness how ridiculous it all is.

first, there's a really sharp curve where all the bags gets stuck and eventually pile up and fall onto the ground. so don't bother standing after the curve. people will also accuse you of taking all the bags off the belt.

second, uh, why doesn't anyone remember what their bag looks like? you packed it 10 hours ago, do you not recall that it is a carboard box with a picture of a microwave on it wrapped in pink plastic and weighs 900 pounds?? since i am the front, i'm expected to be like the guys in the blue suits and check the nametag on same the bag EACH TIME is goes around...and around..and around. no, it's not your bag ma'am.

which leads me to my next point. no one seems to realize that the moving belt is actually a circle. people freak out, that's my bag! there goes my bag! someone get my bag! like they will never see it again.
then it comes back around and they don't recognize it, because they don't know what their bag looks like in the first place (see above)

and...then they get very angry when they finally realize they are seeing the same bags over and over again, like this is some collossal joke that they just figured out. wait.....these are all the same bags we just saw!!
which is when they start screaming at the guys behind the plastic curtain "hey!! stop sending the same bags around! we want new ones!"

Friday, September 9, 2011

what's new in kinshasa!

1. there's a traffic light. a working traffic light. a big fancy one with bright digital numbers that count down until the change.

only problem is no one really follows it.

because if you're a big stupid sucker and you are waiting at the light, you're basically a sitting duck for the police dudes rapping their sticks against everyone's doors and getting bribes.

2. my hotel has internet! working internet! wireless internet! that works! and no animals in cages!

3. bottled water is now 4$ for 50cl, and a package of instant coffee (one serving) is 5$. robbery.

4. there's a suggestion box at the office....

.....located in the toilet. and it's open.

i will suggest they move the suggestion box.

5. the lunch place has a chalkboard that features the specials of the day. today it read:

yaourt du lait

00 F.C.

like, it used to be 500 francs congolais (F.C.) but now someone erased the 5. you can buy them from a dude right right outside for 300 F.C. but it's ok, maybe these are actually cold? so today i nodded in direction of said chalkboard and asked, "oh, you have yogurt today?"

next week, madame.