Wednesday, December 5, 2012

paradise or little bit of hell...

my little safari paradise lodge can quickly teeter on the edge of disturbing prison...
i'll explain. first, if you leave the lodge, the only other stuff in town are other lodges like this one, a chippies supermarket, and a savannah bar, where all the local (men, only) go to drink their faces off and throw bottles on the floor and fight eachother.
so, it's advised to just stick to the premises. premises filled with honeymooning botswanans, or quebecois tour groups. on my game drive today i was stuck with fred and bev from australia and an old swedish couple who pretended not to speak english because fred and bev are SO annoying. i wish i could have played with team sweden but my "hej do!" and knowledge of sköne just didn't cut it. fred has a $5,000 camera lens, like what they use in the press section at wimbeldon, but he takes the crappiest pictures on earth. bev says, fred, take a picture of that there! that plant! that bird! with this really annoying accent. no wait, i just want the sky, with those trees and those clouds. totally bosses him around. fred, i want this, i want a picture of the hippos face, then his body, and then his tail, in 3 different shots, and then we'll blow them up and hang the 3 different parts above the sofa. that kindof stuff. we saw some lions and they were pretty far away, and fred is going at it - but all of his pictures are totally blurry, focused on the wrong thing. he'll email them to me. i had him take my picture with my camera and he cut off half my face. maybe he's blind. fred's big joke in the truck is whose the youngest here who can outrun a ? you there, get out and lure that crocodile over so we can get a picture! hahaha you guys are so funny.
anyway, unlike the other lodges which have these candlelit thatch terraces, our dining room is indoors, air conditioned, and is a buffet death trap. one of the rockers, the botswanans dressed in all leather showed up to provide musical entertainment and at first i did a fist pump, like yeah dude, death metal!  bring it! only, in his really tight leather pants and leather shirt and leather jacket, well, he sings christmas songs, with the voice of barry manilow. it's torture. lionel richie, whitney houston, the hits, all on his yamaha synthesizer, with the programmed beats and synth orchestral sound. i know that thing has more instruments, he could change to electric piano for the stevie wonder but he doesn't. i want to rip my ears out. oh my god, he's actually pretending to be blind and miming the brick wall and door opening. buffet special tonight is calamari stirfry. i shall remind you Botswana is landlocked. in the corner though, there is local fare. caterpillars! not going to try them...hurry up and eat so i can go to my room and watch animal planet and drink duty free wine...yay for eco-tourism!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

yeah, so botswana is the other africa. when i tell people i flew in from kinshasa they're all woah, ok, that's the real africa. i'm in a 4 star safari lodge with quintessential thatched roof luxury, hot towels on arrival, bottomless malawi shandies (tasty), staff in khakis with names like blessing, gift, justice. you hear birds everywhere, grumpy hippos in the river and baboons have taken over the gas station. it's quite a relaxing change. on my way from the airport (in the cheesy open land rover safari thing - that had the strangest stickers in the windshield that read "be smart- get circumsized").
i saw wild boar crossing confidently across the road, and the botswana "rockers" these dudes dressed in all black leather with mohawks and chain wallets. i heard you can't come to kasane without going to see victoria falls, right across the border in zimbabwe. Or zim, as they like to say. also, gaborone, the capital is "gabs." my name is "lee." they like to shorten stuff. i like that.
so i arranged a tour in the activity centre. i was picking out some other things to do, like a sunrise walk but the guy, Trust, was all, that's for birders, hissing birders like it's a derogatory term. i agree they're kinda weird. so i picked the sunset cocktail cruise and a game drive and the "unguided" tour to vic falls, because it was 3 times less than the guided one.
the next day i went to the meeting point for my trip to zim, and since the 2 others had upgraded to the guided tour, i was taken along like an unwanted stepchild and basically had to close my ears or walk a distance away when there was any guiding being done. the first stop was the zimbabwe border. more baboons and disorganized chaos inside, just disorderly, i presume due to the touts, which is what they are talking about with the "no touts" signs. i was going to change some money with the guy who was offering some and then realized it was sortof a joke - he gleefully exchanged 50 Euro cents for more than a billion zimbabwean dollars. why even print your currency when it the lowest denomination is 10 billion? anyway, i guess they use US dollars, though they don't print them, or have any coins so the cheapest thing you can buy is 1 dollar, which makes stuff pretty expensive for most people. they must buy in bulk i guess. the whole border thing took a while but we were met by a minibus on the other side, which was also bringing some people to town, including this old white guy who lives in vic falls. we piled everyone's bags into the back and drove on. the driver warns us that there may be a few police barriers, and so get stopped a bunch. don't take their picture. the first thing we saw was a giraffe, which was pretty cool, and some sable and monkeys. then, under a tree are some police officers who pull us over and search the car. they are particularly interested in this one suitcase and it's the poor old white guy who grumpily shows off all his dirty undies. we get back in and drive off. more monkeys. and another checkpoint. they search the car, "whose suitacase is that?" old white guy's again. he shows off his dirty undies and we're back on the road. another checkpoint. search the car "whose suitacase is that" and they pick the same one! again! there are tons of other backpacks but they seem to love this one. get a new bag man! we are all telling the guy to ditch it altogether, who needs dirty undies anyway? we finally arrive in town and since i'm unguided i'm basically dumped off and told to come back in 5 hours while the others go to the crocodile farm and stuff. i head into victoria falls park and well, it's pretty amazing. lots of annoying french tourists though who take like, a million pictures, and expect no one to step in front of them while they do. on the other side, the zambian side, there are crazy people swimming right at the edge of the falls. devil's pool it's called. crazy. i wander some more until i see this old bridge, from 1905 that crosses the zambezi and people are bungee jumping and stuff (even though i heard the cord broke a few years ago - google it, there's a video and everything).

border crossing

anyway i'm interested in checking out this bridge, which is technically in Zambia. so i go to zambia. to get to the bridge you pass the border and walk this weird, dusty road with lots of trucks, people with huge loads packed on their bikes, women carrying stuff on their heads and monkeys. the only word to describe it is "gloque (sp?)" there are monkeys with cute little babies who clutch the bellies of their mothers it's so cute.
on the bridge there are all these people trying to sell you stuff, and if you don't want to buy stuff they just want money, or to trade something. here they all have weird names like nike, what-what, or the guy named chili con carne. i gave them my hairclips, a pen from the hotel, and they wanted more, like, got any south african rands? and i actually did, some coins and they're like oh, we want bills. picky beggars, huh? so i have a 5 rand bill i won't use and then they're like oh, we want the new ones, do you have the new ones with nelson mandela on them? when you think it can't get any more ridiculous one of them wants my pants. i really like your pants, can we trade your pants for this lovely (hideous) statuette? what, i'm going to walk across the border in my underwear? "you can put on new pants at your hotel" he says. my hotel is in another country and even if it wasn't i am not taking off my pants! (especially since they are my beloved swedish pants my dad took me to the crazy mall in sweden to buy!).
premium, unleaded, or very aggressive baboon?
 i was looking for a place to eat lunch and everything was called "mama africa" or something like that, but served nothing but $15 club sandwiches and spaghetti bolognaise. i wanted something a little more local, and some dude pointed out this total dump behind some houses, with some crooked patio furniture and ladies making stew on the ground. they were super nice. they had gelatinous okra, the sticky maize stuff, and cold cokes. they even came to my table with a teapot of hot soapy water and a bowl to wash my hands - and take my picture. all for 4$ - or only 900 billion zimbabwe dollars! 

Friday, November 30, 2012

bits of kinshasa...

i think the street sweeper went that-a-way
bloody goat head served saturday AND sunday!

goat for lunch? pick your parts!

not a tourist anymore..

so there's finally a company that has a shuttle bus between kinshasa and the international airport. it's a total ripoff at 60$, but the most annoying part is that the driver uses the van as his personal delivery vehicle, picking up his girlfriend, running errands, and it ends up taking twice as long to get anywhere. or worse, he'll go to some really ghetto part of town to pick something up and leaves me in the car while he runs off. i have to quickly lock the doors from inside and sit there while everyone and their mom comes up to the window and begs and stares and bangs on the roof, it's a little uncomfortable. i might as well be on the street with diamonds in my pockets.
it turns out papi will drive me in half the time and half the price so i might as well do that, plus papi is really nice. the road to the airport is being redone, but the right side of the road on the way there still isn't paved the whole way so we weaved into oncoming traffic, on the left side of a highway barrier for a harrowing 35 minutes.
 luckily, we weren't the only ones (see photo), we had an old renault espace leading the way, but still, every once in a while you have to play chicken with a tanker truck that most likely doesn't working brakes...

but the best part, is papi's cleverness.
the airport is a classic african onslaught of non. stop. people asking you for money. la lutte, quoi. the first obstacle is the parking lot. there's no set price, you have to negotiate with a mix of police, militeray, and entrepreneurs. today it was guarded by a military guy with "special agent Jacques Bauer" written in sharpie on the khaki strap of his AK. (Jack Bauer is Keifer Sutherland's character in the TV show 24, in case you didn't know). so while 10 different guys are trying to sell me little suitcase locks on the passenger side (the problem being i actually needed one, but how to open the window and not have them all wave their hands in my face and try and grab your money before the next guy), papi is telling jack bauer that i'm from the presidential palace. which, well, is sortof kinda true. one guy totally doesn't believe us and starts yelling, banging on the hood, and i have my huge jackie O sunglasses on and really playing up my disinterested presidential demeanor. we're in a mercedes, dude. jack bauer rubs his chin and thinks for a bit, and then, ok, green light. he smacks the screaming guy for disrespecting someone from the palace and eventually calms everyone down, gives us the salute and says that he will now personally escort us inside. because we are from the presidential palace! everyone stands at attention. i high-five papi who says, that guy isn't going to escort us anywhere, he's just going to be the one who stays by the car and gets 1000 francs at the end. true. 
we unload the car, shoo away the 20 or so one armed scragglers who want to carry my bag, sell me phone credit or bags of tasty grasshoppers. papi does a little change transaction and now has a wad of francs and passes them sneakily to every police officer, guard so he can come in to the ticket area with me. then for some reason, we sit down, we just wait. and i'm wondering why i'm not in the check-in line, but papi says just wait. surely enough a guy in an ed hardy style shirt with "RDC all the time" written in flames comes and collects all my documents to do my checkin for me. because thats how we roll with papi, people do our dirty work for us. this probably breaks every security rule in the book, but whatever. so papi and i are just chillin' hangin' out, adding eachother on facebook, and i pay a guy to get me a lock, another one to buy cigarettes (good gifts for friends!). i told ed hardy before he took off that i wanted a window seat, business class (worth a shot), and that my bags should be checked all the way to Botswana (i have ridiculous stopovers and am cursing my travel agent for making me spend 2 consecutive nights in crappy african airports but i digress). 30 minutes later, and i don't even know how this is possible, ed hardy comes back with my boarding passes and assures me my bags are checked to bangkok. bangkok. i have this handwritten boarding pass for bangkok? no no no. BOTSWANA. Kasane. as it is written on my itinerary. ok ok ok. 30 more minutes. now what. i have to pee. and the n'jili airport toilets are what you enter only in an absolute emergency - like you are being chased by a murderer. the murderer if he is human will never follow you in there. so i usually shy away from any drinking. but papi asks me if i have ever been to the upstairs lounge? upstairs lounge? i've been to this airport what, 7 times in 5 years, there's an upstairs lounge? the only bar i know is a place with 3 broken plastic chairs. it's more of a stand, really. this whole time i could have been in the lounge?? so we go to the lounge. and holy crap it's up on the roof, overlooking the runway, and there's a huge balcony where all the baggage handlers guys are hanging out with their shirts off. this is an outpost of the grand hotel where a coke is 5$ (and a diet coke is 10$??) so, yeah, it's pricey. but it's nice, and the waiters are all wearing red tuxedos. they have a giant air conditioning unit, even though you're outside. luxury. i gave ed hardy 4$ and he complained that he wanted more and then we ignored him until he went away, and papi told me about his family, his philosophy on DRC, his recent trip to dubai. there were signs everywhere that said "you won't miss your flight! see departure announcements on our state of the art TV system!" and then you pan to an unplugged tv on the departure time had kinda come and gone, so i ask the waiter, how do i know when my flight is boarding? and he gestures towards the you see a kenya airways plane? i see the congo river in the distance, the junkyard of airplane corpses, a propellor plane loading up 25 barrels of cooking oil, and people wearing blue pyjamas sweeping the runway with rattan brooms, just like they do on the boulevard. when the plane lands, watier tells me, then it's time to go. so i ordered some more beer, avoided the bathroom until i couldn't anymore...drank some more beers, and finally, lo and behold, with only 3 hours delay the plane arrived...and then, goodbye congo, and hello (in 29 hours) 5 star safari lodge in botswana!

Thursday, November 29, 2012


just a couple of more things.
1. everyone here has a shitting their pants story. each one worst than the next. if you haven't shat your pants, then you haven't lived in Africa. guaranteed. lull at a party? ask someone their pants-shitting story. my only pant-shitting episode was when i was 4, documented forever via a wonderful photograph....i am dreading when my time comes again...and according to everyone, it will. here, have some more sauteed grasshoppers!
2."le domestique" didn't show for three days in a row. never called or nothing ("even though he has 3 telephones!" filiberto says shaking his finger at me). so, either he's really, really ill, like, unconscious or dead, the rebels have finally come, or he's stolen something big. we were all counting the wads of money in our secret hiding places when he showed up again. he mumbled when we asked what happened. he's kindof a shady character though, he shows up every day in a fly 3 piece suit. then changes into his white pyjamas and starts sweeping, barefoot. the italians treat him like shit, anytime he sits down they yell at him to do something and he sortof listens. i'm 100% sure that when everyone leaves the house he hangs out and watches tv because there's like, practically nothing to do in the house. it's spotless. he irons my underwear, like my grandma. but why the suit? do you think he tells his wife that he works at a bank or something? sometimes, when i leave really early, he's outside, hanging out with the guards, in his suit, swinging in the hammock watching tv (because every house guard basically sets up shop wherever he works - mattress, cooking stove, tv, the works. i have no idea where they poop though).
3. a lot of guys on the street move stuff around in these wheelbarrow cart things, like a car or truck trailer with 2 big tires and a big handle. actually, wait, i think it's just a car trailer. anyway, they'll haul junk, piles of cement pieces or whatever and they have to use the street because the sidewalks aren't big enough. there's one i see near the house that has "Congo Intelligence Agency - CIA" written in sloppy paint on the back of it. one of the wheels is totally flat, and the other is held on to the cart by only 1 lugnut, so it's barely connected to the thing, and it wobbles, really far, more than 90 degrees back and forth, so far that this in terms of propulsion, this wheel might as well be a square. or a triangle, i bet a triangle might be better because every few feet, he has to push it, really hard, to get past the wobble and we'll be at the light and i'll cheer him, with the same rhythm oh...wooo...wooah waooooitsgoingtofalloff!...ahhhhh but it doesn't.

i feel kinda bad, i want to just give him 500 francs so he can go see the wheel repairman, who happens to have his little stand right off the street, but CIA guy is kinda wiley. he's really hyper and walks with really quick steps, constantly screaming and waving at cars to get out of his way. he's most likely entirely crazy.
4. i saw an auto-ecole. they were stopped at the traffic light. they were the ONLY ones stopped at the traffic light, as everyone else is weaving around for their left on red, me first you last and honking, creating a mess. as usual. inside the car was this terrified little congolese guy clutching the steering wheel, white knuckles, with his fat instructor next to him. oh man, i didn't want to be them. especially since it was this teeny tiny yellow kia, it was leaning to the side of the instructor and the thing had not a single working light. it's pitch dark (the chinese streetlights aren't working again - my theory is that they are like christmas lights, where one bulb goes out and the rest are all dark) anyway this car is sitting there, with no turn signals, no headlights - definitely suicide to go into the intersection. but the back of the car, looks like it's been rear ended by a snowplow. just jammed in, it's a miracle the wheels are still touching the ground, and there's actually a woman, crammed into what's left of the back seat. hilarious. especially since it's the time of day (rush hour) when the stoplights suddenly just flickr and shortcircuit and go all green, or all red all at once. what will this person learn? madness.
5. and can i just say how everyone thinks i'm the shit because i get driven to and from work in a really sweet mercedes? i swear, it's nicer than the most corrupt guy at our office. everyone asks me for papi's number, and i give it to them, but whenever they call he says he's busy. when i call he's all no problem! 10 minutes! so everyone just uses my phone to call him and that's why i never have any minutes left. and even though he always shows up an hour later when he says right away, the point is that you're sitting in a sweet mercedes, and now the stereo works, big time. so, bass, beats, ride.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

rebels? what rebels?

so we haven't really heard much about the rebels lately. you have to understand, the internet here is the equivelent of boingobong modem style. it takes about 15 minutes just to open someone sent me a 3MB email and it has been downloading for 3 days and i can't receive any new messages until it gets through. my other source of news are the guys at intersections with local papers with NY post style headlines "kabila is a tranny!". but it's been raining so I haven't seen them.
so i get most of my news from what happens at the restaurant. apparently some ministers came in and drank champagne so i guess things are back to normal? maria was in one of her moods and told them, hey! you're drinking champagne while what is going on in the east? what ever happened to the army? and the post office for that matter? the ministers they complained that they actually had asked for a half bottle and not a full one.

anyway, it seems there will or is an international force, angolans, tanzanians to try and settle the score over there, but if you ask maria - it won't be free! they're going to make us pay! my brother told me that the NY times said the M23 actually keep goma clean and recycle. i'm sure that aside from the rapings and kidnappings and drugging of children and giving them weapons the M23 are probably really stand-up guys. but i don't really see the momentum, they'll take over a few more hut villages until the angolans show up...then it might get messy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

my favorite AK

you know you've been in congo too long...when you start recognizing the different types of weapons. one of the guys in front of my house has a sweet ak-74. sniper rifle stlye with a little stand and a big bullet-holder-thingy (there's probably a more accurate term for it). anyway, he's a little effeminate and carries it around like a purse. it's really odd the way he swaddles to move the cone in front of the driveway.
anyway, since monday they started blocking off a larger radius around the house and you need to go through more checkpoints to get home. at some of them they check the trunk of the car and stuff. papi will pop the trunk, and they are a little startled at first, because it opens by itself, like how you can scare a cat when it's really curious, and it jumps 10 feet in the i'm asking papi, seriously, where did you hide the grenades, don't lie to me..while the military guys, they inspect and finally say "ok go on your way" but they don't shut the trunk. and so papi is all, rollling down the window, shut the trunk please! and the military guy says, "what, you can't shut the trunk from inside?" and then you realize, right, why is it that you can open the trunk with a button, but there is none to close it?? congo:1 ; mercedes: 0
but yeah since papi has his sweet mercedes, and speaks swahili, they all nab him for change. it's quite an effective tollbooth. luckily he doesn't mind though, he'll say, giggling, with his friendly smile  "i'd rather pay them then be shot in the face." couldn't agree more, papi. especially since most of them area totally wigged out on drugs. but i will start buying them cigarettes though, just because i think it will be badass to give these guys in camouflage cigarettes. so i told papi i want to buy cigarettes, and papi has like, eagle vision, he scans the sidewalks for all the guys with the stuff on their heads. and just imagine now, no streetlights, muddy yet dusty streets, you can barely see 10 feet in front of you, people everywhere, unrecognizable faces, just clothes floating with various floating head markets. oh! that guy has cigarettes but, only marlboro. i want amabassador brand. the real deal. so we keep going. if you need avocados, kleenex, phone credit, you can find that too, on someone's head. but it's real fun to just stop on the side of the road and order from the window, drive through style. the other day i was making a joke about reefer and papi is all, oh, you want reefer? i know just the place, right there, and there's a dude, sutting under a tree, 50 feet from 6 policemen. well there you go, anything you want in congo, it's right in front of you! 

Monday, November 26, 2012

5 year anniversary

being a sagitarrius it's not often that i am cleaning sand out of my hair on my birthday!
but this year was second birthday celebrated in kinshasa, actually, as I turned 30, 5 years ago during my first visit to this crazy country. on both, congo gave me the gift that keeps on giving: diarhhea.
anyway, my colleague cyril was born the same day and year, and so, during one of our philosophical conversations about being 35 years old, which is practically the life expectancy in congo, we decided we should do something to commemorate this occasion. 
first, we went food shopping. meat, beer, wine, summer roll fixins. then, we called mr. kibinda at the ole yacht club of kinshasa and arranged a boat, bbq, tent, with a dude to take us to a sandy island in the middle of the congo river. we put together our list of guests, and i even got to pick which of cyril's son's friends could join us. i picked the super smart half dutch boy with the big ears. he's my favorite of the little gang of 9 ear old expats i've gotten to know these weeks.
so on saturday night, we made summer rolls. a ton of them. i got a little creative and started making designs with the cabbage and carrots (did some interlaced plaid, inspired by my brother), and even started writing our friends names in vegetables, and you could see it through the skin. how awesome is that? then, well, we got pretty drunk and had some more philosophical conversations, mine stirred up mostly by this other girl who is working with us, at home she is fixing up a sailboat and getting ready to go around the world in it for 5 years or something, and, well, it just makes you feel just a little lame in comparison. you know, i have 2 cats. anyway we drank a lot of wine and ate some local ice cream we had picked out (yes! the lebanese have finally brought ice cream to kinshasa!) and drank some more and finally just sat outside totally quiet watching the torrential was too rainy and late to call papi so i crashed on the couch. in the morning we went to my house to pick up my stuff and my italian grandma scolded me like i had snuck out or something, i think i'm grounded. also, i need to clean my room.

take a ride to kisangani? we have both men and women's toilets!
anyway, the road to the yacht club is black, stinky mud, probably mixed with oil or something. people who live in shipping containers selling smoked fish - only their idea of smoking is putting it in a homemade rattan grill thing and carbonizing it to something vaguely recognizeable, looks like black charcoal with eye holes. someone should really teach them about preserving fish so it's actually edible.
we got in our boat. and. it rained. and rained. there was a delicate point when i thought, this might turn really bad. after an hour we weren't laughing as much anymore. half of us were huddled under the canopy tent we brought, which the wind kept on picking up and dumping its water onto some unlucky person and then ripping up all the stakes. try staking something into wet sand...i was soaked through my clothes, muddy sand everywhere, my lingering stomach cramps gaining strength...the kids didn't care they were playing in the warm water and finally i joined them for an hour long mud fight and my fruitless attempts to drown the dutch kid when finally...the sun came out. grill was lit, little game of frisbee, some rum punch, perfect! and the summer rolls. everyone is all wow, and picking out their customized rolls. we even had napkins, plates, and the whole time me and cyril are all, wow, we really pulled this together, hey folks, how about some ice cubes made with potable water?  "on a assuré grave!" and sailboat girl she's sitting there, eating a fresh, delicous summer roll with her name on it (also vegetarian to fit her diet), and she goes you know, i really find your peanut sauce too thick. it's definitely too thick. and she's like picking at it. didn't you have soy sauce? now, i should mention that the sauce was that morning, under a pretty severe hangover/diarhhea/no sleep situation and actually, i made it thick so that it would stick to the roll when you put it in the bowl and wouldn't dribble on your shirt. also, peanut butter, if you don't want the chinese stuff costs like, 18$. like i said, j'ai assuré grave. so yeah, i had a look on my face that i guess said, you're on an island in the middle of the congo river eating a summer roll with your name on it, and you are complaining because the peanut sauce is too thick? so, i water it down nice and good, so it's all liquidy and oh oh! shame, it dribbles on her shirt, which she has to wash in the river. ha ha.

deserted island bbq...
anyway, it's difficult to imagine you are only 3km away from a city of millions of people, kinshasa on one side, brazza on the other, lebanese guys on jetskis zipping around, and just over here, turning 35 where people live in huts and fish from their pirogues...and eat them without having to smoke them to a pulp. and i'll take that over living on a cramped sailboat for 3 years.

Friday, November 23, 2012


we have a new method of ordering stuff at restaurants and bars. after a while you get sick of being brought random stuff, like, i ordered a pizza not the pig intestines. and they always bring me sprite. i never order sprite but there's always one on the tray for me. so when we order, my colleague cyril feels like he has to compile everyone's order in a clear and distinct manner for the waitress to understand. so if you go around the table, people are always "I'll have that too" or "i'll take that, but with fries - wait! i want bananas instead" and that's the trap you see, that's how you end up with sprite. everyone adds and changes their order and the waitress never has a pen so she just pretends to write with her finger and everyone is getting sprite.
to overcome this cyril ("j'ai marre qu'on commande et qu'on m'amene n'importe quoi!") summarizes. very loud "allez, on repete! un poulet frites! un poulet banane!" only problem is that he always fucks it up and you have to interrupt, "non! un poulet riz! un poisson frites!" and it actually just confuses everyone even more, and i think i am going to start eating out by myself now...and also, when he does that they really just think he's an asshole. today we gave the guy at 100$ bill for a 75$ tab, which is usually not a problem, they should have 25$ laying around but the guy was all, i have to go over there make change, only we should have known something was up because he was putting on his coat and shoes and well, he just..never came back.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

work story #3

turns out the office phone bills haven't been paid since 2011. Vodacom finally cut off everyone's phone. no one has blackberries, office lines, nuthin. people can still call you, you just can't call them back. so you race to answer and if you miss it you have to run out to the little guys with hte umbrella at the carboard and buy credit. so then you have to call the world bank guy back before he gets on a plane and you're scratching the silver part of this teeeeeeny tiny piece of paper with a coin and saying "putaaaaain merrrrde!"

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

kinshasa snow day

the offices closed early today and everyone was sent home until further notice. after the rebels took over Goma, and people burned vehicles in Kisangani and bunia, threw rocks at UN vehicles, there was a rumor that unrest could come to kinshasa any time. better safe than sorry. especially since our office is right next door to munosco (you can see the tips of blue helmets in their little lookout cages over the wall) and we have seen our fair share of stray bombs in the past. my theory? people in drc are so poor and miserable and angry about being poor and miserable they will take any opportunity to make themselves heard, and also steal and break stuff. especially rich white people's stuff. or, according to my host grandpa "ils sont tous des singes, ils se mangerait entre eux." mmmm well i refrain from being shocked at this perspective, or telling him that monkeys actually aren't carnivorous species, but but then he adds "les italiens sont pareils d'ailleurs!"
but actually there are some other things to consider - most demonstrations in DRC do not last for more than a few days. as we saw after the eletions last year, protesting is a luxury. most people cannot afford. they can't just not work for a few days...they inevitably need food and money and must give up their cause for survival. also, it's raining. nothing happens when it rains. the buses don't even run. so we are not too worried about protests...
nevertheless, so we all loaded into a land cruiser, and boniface drove all the mondeles home. my house was the first stop. the guys at the checkpoint were unusually chipper, and even gave me the four star stand-at-attention hand-to-beret salute. when i got out of the truck i glanced over at the little encampment right next door. i handed a guy some yogurt that expired today and i was to scared to eat. the military guys all live in a big crooked canvas tent in the front yard of an abandoned house. looks straight out of world war I. probably 30 of them in there? 4 guys guard the post while the others sit around and smoke cigarettes, build fires, hang their laundry, sweat through their uniforms. there's a little tin hut, lit with a lone light bulb that sells two things: cigarettes and canned tomato paste? can't tell, the labels are all faded and falling off. pretty sure cigs are the only hot item. they all have sweaty faces and look tired. papi told me he had an appointment at the presidential palace once, and even the guards in there, like at the desks where you check in were begging for spare change.
there are over 12,000 congolese military stationed in Kivu. if these guys in kinshasa can't eke out a living in the shadow of the president, what do you think it's like out there? a lot of people say that the first choice a military guy will make is to sell his weapon for a piece of bread to feed his family. what would he even fight for? even today, they interviewed some rebels and they were all, rwanda? we get our arms for real cheap from the starving congolese army! filiberto told me every single plane from his old company was sold to south africa for peanuts. better than trying to fly them here. they'll sell anything. railroad ties. there's a fat guy who walks around offering the belt from his uniform, real cheap. when an official military vehicle comes, he quickly buckles up.
so i was home. in complete security with filiberto and his history of lighting elephant dynamite and walking around with grenades in his pockets. his son works for the UN and so we have a special radio. every 30 minutes some east timorian or nigerian announces something about the security level and to avoid crowds or being outside or whatever. we turned the radio down and turned up the tv. drinking molto grappa i birra. maria made a delicious spaghetti soup and we watched chelsea-juventus and cursed and cheered. sekuriteee levellll thr- GOOOOOOOOL! italian tv also has a lot of game shows with busty models in miniskirts and over-tanned announcer guys with hair implants, but my favorite are the video-pedia interludes "il momenti di historia" which tells you about some grand person or event in italy. car racing in the 1892 (ferrari?), or boticelli. every 20 minutes filiberto asks me if i want an espresso. i can't drink any more espresso, my teeth feel like cement. but when i finally cave in, we sit at the table and filiberto tells me stories. about how they started their restaurant: a rich lebanese guy showed up at the old place they were managing and gave them 10 days to open a new place with him. (they were over 70 years old, cooker jules, you still have time!) filiberto also loves his pilot days. he taught me about the different types of jet fuel, how to test it for contamination, the crazy runways in the east and what kind of clouds to avoid (actually all very relevant for my project to fly a cessna over congolese forests) and emergency landings, when you go into the cargo hold and throw everything out but the tanks and diamonds, and whatever "special package" being delivering to heads of state. pretty sure he carried ivory tusks in there, too - "those were just gifts" he says. filiberto pours more grappa. he isn't drinking until christmas, part of his "military regime," and so he makes me and maria drink double. maria is upset because the vet couldn't get through the police blockades to give the poodles their fleabath. (rich people problems).
and now for slight non-sequitur, an untranslateable excerpt from one of my colleague cyril's rants, the kind he gives every day around 11am when he threatens to quit:
"putain j'en peut plus, j'ai envie de me casser, grave, je travaille comme un gros con pour sauver 3 pauvre okapis tout pelés, et tes italos, la, ils sont petés de tune! leur resto marche a bloc sur les epaules d'un libanais bourré de coke! et des spaghetti bolognaise pour $23? je bouffe de la semoule avec des petits pois en boite, et mon loyer c'est presque $3500/mois! t'as vu l'etat de notre compta, c'est de la grosse merde, pourquoi on peut pas avoir un libanais bourré de coke, nous??"
maria complains that these problems always come at the same time of year, before christmas. president kabila where is he, he is invisble, she tells me. filiberto fills in - he's too afraid to come to DRC because someone will kill him just like his father! she says "ah, the good god blessed the congo with everything!" filiberto ends the sentence "but the congolese were all sleeping that day!"

work story #2

there's a project on a lake which bought 2 whaling boats, and hired 2 boat captains. the boat captains were supposed to load up the boats with supplies and go to the lake. no big deal, journey should take 2 about weeks. instead, they went missing for about 3 months. no one knew where they were. boats, supplies, all gone. someone finally figures out that the boat captains have actually been running some sort of bushmeat market up and down the congo river, to kinshasa and back 10 or 12 times. selling meats of stuff of animals that the project is supposed to protect. the trail is pretty obvious, the boats have checked in several times at the port of kinshasa and everything. so they show up at the lake, weeks and weeks later, work delayed, and they are all looking at their watches style "ohhh where did the time go, musta gotten lost, yoodyooo." they are connected to tons of government people. Nevertheless, they should get fired and put in jail, right? but no, this is congo. instead they are suing us for overtime. and the saddest part? they'll most likely win. so we're probably just going to pay them.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

work story #1

employee A (i.e. me) brings lunch to work. lunch is an avocado, some crackers, a nice ripe mango and laughing cow cheese. put it the fridge at the end of the hall. whatevs.
employee B brings lunch to work. puts it in the fridge. employee B's lunch is a bag of those huge albino squiggly worm larvae things, which are alive, and crawl out of their bag and into mine. they devour my avocado and my mango.
lunch time. horrid screams.  
i go to employee b (who is this tiny guy wearing a huge suit and shoes that are twice his size, like honey i shrunk employee B. his chin reaches the top of the desk and he has those bifocal reading glasses on his nose that i think are fake).
uh, hey, your lunch apparently just ate my lunch!
"oh those little rascals. shall we share? they're probably twice as big now."


Monday, November 19, 2012


taximan papi is still here and he is still my taximan. and unlike the others he doesn't stop working at 23h, or try to rip my off everyday. papi was in bukavu all last week and so i had to use the backup guy, jean pierre. who has an old nissan with the tintedest windows that can't be legal even in congo. half the windshield is black and every other one too, it's like in that vampire movie with ethan hawke. now, i take the same taxi, every day between house and work. same time. same distance (except when he ges lost trying a shortcut, which is every other day). yet every single time jean-pierre is all, today it's 5$ more. and you say whatever dude, we  went through this yesterday, you're a crook and i make sure i have correct change and that's it. papi has a sweet new mercedes. i don't know where he picked i up, but, it's actually not a great thing because you get even more harassed by the beggars at intersections than before. also, papi has an israeli flag on the dashboard and given recent events i'm all, papi, really? and he says that it's because his real name is israel. and turns out i didn't really know his story, but he studied in the netherlands and stuff and has a degree and everything. woah. so i'm trying and get him a legit job at our office. anyway, we call the new boulevard, which is all paved and stuff the congo-bahn. he took it up to 180km/hr the other day.
i call papi a lot, yet the military guys at the checkpoint at my house always give him a hard time. they yell at him in swahili (apparently, you don't work for the presidential military and speak local lingala, all these guys are from the east) but so is papi so he yells right back.  
but maybe i call papi too much because the other day he asked me if i just wanted to rent his car instead? that means i call too much, right? or is she just lazy? he said i could pay him at the end. and i said, you mean after i destroy your nice mercedes. because people drive like nuts. it was actually on CNN the other day, how most people don't actually learn to drive, they just go to the DMV or some dude on the street and pay for a license. the announcer guy with his english accent was all "over here, just on the other side of this wall, you'll find the deadliest streets of kinshasa." the minibuses, by rule, don't obey traffic lights and cut you off, careen left turns into speeding traffic, and honk honk and honk behind you if you are so lame as to wait for the green. at least 3 times a day, cyril will say, now that guy really almost hit us. given the condition of their vehicles, they don't worry about collisions. i've actually heard if you get into an accident with a congolese you better just RUUUUUN.
but i'm still thinking about it. my reputation as "la kinoise" would really kick it up a notch if i had my own ride. i had my dressmaker lady make me some new outfits and when i show up to work it's all whistles and hi-fives, and they ask me when i'm going to take a congolese husband (of course, they are all offering themselves). but no congolese husband, and i wouldn't take the mercedes, too low rider, and the bottom scrapes over the potholes. i think i would feel better in the old rav 4. even though it's right-hand drive english style, it would be kindof fun, right? i'll ask papi next time he picks me up to let me drive. now that's gonna flip their lids, a mondele chick driving a congolese dude around? yes.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

this isn't buca di beppo's

my italian host family is the best.  i have watched more berlusconi tv in 4 days than in my whole life. espresso every morning. my poor french colleague, i set her up with another woman who answered my ad, and it's the opposite. i come home to fresh made cake, she comes home to the empty yogurt containers she just bought at the store (yogurts are more expensive than wine!). and her host is just not used to having a roommate, and does stuff like leaving the key in the lock on the inside of the door and then going to sleep and then my friend has to knock and knock and knock. 
i have been trying to explain to my hosts filiberto and maria what a buca di beppo is. they do the italian wave thing when i told them about the pope room. they tell me about trying to cook for 300 people amidst a power outage. or how the really rich congolese customers ask if the salmon is frozen and then complain about it. they say stuff like "i was in europe last week and the salmon was fresh." maria says yes, the customer is always right - i will fish her salmon out of the fleuve congo next time!
i invited the french coleague and the italian/nigerian/british girl alex to dine, as well as a guy i met on the plane, an eager new to kinshasa expat kinda guy who is here to start a garbage segregation program. which, when you tell anyone about it they laugh. you can really laugh at the thought of a congolese guy in the slums, standing there with no shoes in front of a yellow, green and blue bin. alex is all, people in italy still don't separate their trash, they throw it on the street, how are you going to change the congolese??
when martin the german guy shows up, he looks at the menu and is all, woah, i can't order anything. and i'm thinking, is he allergic or something? i told him home-made pasta? and he's all no, i only have 10$. now, these are normal kinshasa prices, 20$ minimum for anything, it's 3$ for a beer. and in addition, this restaurant is nice. like really nice. home-made pasta, martin, did you think a congolese was going to make us fettucine? there is attentive service, no one swishing their flip flops, a beautiful garden. it's no buca di bepo, this is palena. probably the nicest in Kin. and this guy has 10$. so i start asking, where have you been eating? staying? getting around? and even though my german isn't so great i get the quick jist that this guy has no idea what he is doing. he thinks he's in a normal cheap cheery african town or something. mombasa? where everything is less than a $ you can walk where you like. he's in some hostel. takes any taxi and bus. eats anywhere on the street. he does all these things. (must be kind of interesting!) i ask him, normal eh? do you think the guy outside this restaurant who was burning metal and animal carcasses and has no legs and one arm stub is normal? (which also makes for an interesting one-hand clapping debate). maybe i told him a few too many stories because he started getting worried, like, wow, i gave up my apartment in prenzlauerberg to spend a year in africa. well, welcome to kinshasa. then he tells me how the congolese government owes his company like, months and months of payments and his investors are really nervous and needs to rent an apartment and blah blah and no one but martin is outraged. what's your point, martin? ahhh germans in congo. welcome to congo!
then filiberto comes, with his nice argyle sweater (it's...100 degrees?) and invites me to see the kitchen and pantry. 40 kg of parmesan! and homemade limoncello in bottles of stolinaya.

because i know the owners they treat me like they used to at palena. very nice. the manager is attentive, friendly, tries repeatedly to find the france-italy game on tv. martin, i guess thinks the manager is the son of the restaurant owners, who also lives with me and works for the UN, so he introduces himself, like, i'm martin, i met aurelie on the plane and the guy is all, why do i care? until he looks at martin's card and starts asking all these questions about how we plans on doing his recycling cleaning - turns out he's some sort of recycling engineer. so they get into this whole discussion, with the manager laughing - can you imagine a congolese guy putting his trash in 4 different bins? hahahaha.  he has since forgotten about finding us the right soccer game on tv and we see panama/spain, sweden/england, but not sweden france. then maria comes and she asks me about the game. i don't know! we all make our predicitons and she calls her son. i hear aie aie no le and some curses. france wins! 2-1! maria slams down the phone and in her awesome accent says, i will leave the key in the door tonight so when you come home you can't open the door and you will sleep-ah outside-ah! no one beats italy!
p.s. picturesof the pool.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

sacre marcel.

my new favorite guy at the office is marcel. he is our logistics man, and so whenever you need something the answer is "marcel gere" which is like, marcel's got it covered. he has a sort of permanently black swollen eye, sorta cyclops but really likeable face.
marcel has it mostly covered. the other day he walks in to ask the boss - how much storage space do we need to rent? and me and cyril turn our heads 15 degree rotation towards the dangerously towering pile of boxes and equipment that has eaten up 3/4 of the office, through which we have created a tunnetl to link the door and window, it looks like an episode of hoarders. i don't know marcel, what do you think? he's like, yeah, 20m2, just what i thought. can i negotiate with them, boss? and pay up front? of course marcel!
today i needed to exchange my euros. the airport in paris was a total ripoff! 1.05? marcel hisses and shoos me with his hand, explaining that in kinshasa there is demand for euros, and where there is demand, people pay. people will pay for my euros. big time.
so we get the driver, and i love when i get to have 2 guys driving around kinshasa in our land cruiser. feels very special.
we go the special change place called "mama double" where marcel knows a guy. marcel knows everyone. and for marcel, everything is negotiable. so we go in and the guy is all, dollar is 1.26 today and i'm thinking yeah!  awesome! here you go! and i start to take out my wad and marcel hisses, it was 1.28 yesterday! we will go somewhere else. and they scream at us, marcel, you don't have internet? if you look on the internet you will see that the dollar is 1.26 today. so we go to the next place. here they have a dry erase board with $1.26 written on it. no way. next place. i am now completely sweating through my clothes and i don't really care at this point if it's 1.3688, i need some air conditioning. i see the driver buying kleenex and pens from the street guys, and selecting bananas from a bucket on a woman's head and realize we have done a huge circle and we are back to where we started. marcel says "that was just my verification procedure!" ah ok, so the rate is 1.26.

don't you have internet on that fancy blackberry?
"but the internet does not negotiate."
and here marcel saunters up to the counter and arrogantly takes the calculator on the counter and starts calling out figures. 2,290. 2,270 it keeps on going down until they settle on a figure - 50$ more than what i calculated at 1.26.
he looks at me "demand."
but then the guy doesn't have enough dollars and so he goes away and we are standing here in this sauna closet thing. it is so hot. so so hot. there's an air conditioner on the floor in pieces. i ask if we can charge more the longer we wait in this hellbox and you can see him actually considering it...great idea!
we buy some tissues from the street guys and dab at our foreheads. my back is a river.
finally the guy comes back and they are all thank you very much please come back soon!
then we go pay the hotel bill, which i show marcel. no-no-no. this is not what he pay. so marcel goes in a charms the owner lady into a 20% discount. sacre marcel! maybe i don't need to move in with the italians after all?
speaking of which, it is time to take my bags over to my new abode, which is behind a military barricade, where you need to talk to the guy with the beret and machine gun and explain your life and then he slowls moves a cone. super secure. we get through and i ring the doorbell and unfortunately, the italian grandpa shows up in a wife beater (also called a marcel in french) and half of his face in shaving cream. bonjiorno! i quickly put my bags down and run back to the truck. i'm all, so, what do you think of my new place, really secure hein? see these guys? not just police officers but army dudes and marcel laughs all out, "hahahahhaa yeah, so secure! especially the next time they try and kill the president, which is like, every weekend hahahahaha! and the guys with the machine guns are totally your friends then, hahahha" sacre marcel.


Monday, November 12, 2012

apartment hunting

i've decided that i've had it with kinshasa hotel life. you pay more than $100/day for the non-stop people games, the unclean laundry, the "madame! madame!," the pets and brown water, the expensive restaurant, etc, etc.
our previous apartment rental here ended in disaster..why not just stay with someone? who lives here? like normally? so i put an ad in the british embassy bulletin. and a bunch of people wrote me back! so i went apartment hunting!
buuuut it's kindof different. first of all, no street signs. when you talk to someone, you have to know all these place markers, it's like, do you know the restaurant where they serve elephant? the burned down fire department? what about the zambian ambassador's house? the urban planning ministry (haha, fooled you that doesn't exist).
so, first you have to find the place (though i found out the nice people who come and pick you up!).
then you need to know if it has power? water? toilet? these things are especially important if the apartment is on the 26th floor (yes there is such a thing!!).
i ran the gamut, visiting houses of interns, NGO do-gooders, christian do-gooders, and well, i decided to live with the italian guy (raybans, italian soccer jersey, pencil thin goah-tee) and his octogenarian parents and 2 hyper poodles. it's 5000 sq. ft? they have a pool. and own the best italian restaurant in town ("don't go to napolitano - it's owned-ah by portguese-ah!!") and live right across from the presidential palace. so close you need to get a military camouflage dude to move a cone when you come home. for 1/5th the price of a hotel. and well, if i need to get around, i can hire my taxi guy (we fired all our work chauffeurs because they steal gas. lots of it.). i'll hire my taxi guy full time! so full time that he'll sleep outside in his rav-4, next to the military dudes. that's livin' the life-ah! 

Saturday, November 10, 2012


there is something to be said about the truly outrageous inconsistencies, the nonsensical opposites that you see in Kinshasa on a daily basis:

-the people who fly in on air france with fur hats and louis vuitton bags being met outside by their barefoot torn-pyjama wearing aquaintances
-the dancing light rainbow light tubes that illuminate the parking lot in front of city hall, across from one of the poorest, electricity-lacking neighborhoods, who live amidst the glow and smoke of homemade gas lanterns
-the people who love that i voted for obama! he stands for everything wonderful! except for the gay marriage part.
"a society must set moral limits. what is next, people will marry their dogs?"
me: but you're ok with polygamy? like having a wife and a mistress?
"that is just human nature! what is immoral about having a wife and a mistress?"
-the people you employ, where the more you pay them, the more they steal
-green renault street cleaning machines??

-the guy that sells huge pillows at the red light.
-the fire station that burned to the ground. the firemen still sit there every day, in uniform, amid the sad ashes of trucks and buildings.

Friday, November 9, 2012

papa wembaaa

if you are a white girl in africa, you fall into one of two categories: either overweight and like black dudes, or everyone else. i happen to be in the other category, which makes me unlikely to attend a papa wemba concert.
papa wemba is like the bob dylan/mick jagger/winston marsalis of central africa. old guy. suspenders. hat. good music.
whenever he plays in kinshasa the show is meant to start at 8, but he doesn't end up on stage before 3 am and everyone is drunk and wasted included papa wemba and it's usually a mess. tonight he was playing at the monusco -largest UN presence in the world, btw-it's UN blue helmet benetton ad zone kinda thing. my nigerian friend alice who works at the mining ministry knows an argentinan greasy comb over guy named luis who could get us in. my colleagues warned me it was going to be an endless night of getting hit on by bangladeshies and uruguayans, and obnoxiously gave me a female condom brochure, but i had nothing better to do. i just want to see papa wemba, ok?
so alice and i go and show up at this plastic desk with lots of people at it in the middle of the UN parking lot, where they check IDs and such. the price seems very variable. 5$ or 15$, depends on who you ask. all we had was a 50 dollar bill and we hand it over and the lady holding the money in a louis vuitton purse attemps the confuse and diffuse strategy, to somehow make us not realize she owes us a lot of change. some guys ask alice where she's from, and just to make sure she's congolese they talk to her in lingala but she tells me under her breath how stupid the congolese are and simply invents a province or something where she is from. like, i'm from wangawala. and it's like, ohmygod you come from so far away! poor thing!

there are IDs handed around, this and that and finally they realize there are two of us, and only 1 monusco person to sign for us. the cash lady thinks this is a perfect reason to not give us our change so we must resort to starting a scene. hand waving. so on. the italian very metrosexual manager of the evening comes over hurriedly and says "luis, you ah no ah read ah my email-ah. only one-ah guest-ah per person-ah! you always make a trouble-ah!" so alice goes in  with luis and i tell her i'll figure it out. there are tons of people coming in, I feel a bit like a groupie outside a club, though i remind myself, i'm at a plastic table in a gravel parking lot...everyone coming is mostly UN dude with very prostitutish woman. no dice.
finally this UNHCR truck pulls up with an old solo white guy and i'm all, UNHCR man, I'm a papa wemba refugee, help meee! turns out he's like, head of the humanitarian unit or something. and refugees are not a funny topic. no dice.
finally, the metrosexual guy is like, okay-ah! i take you with me, but this is the last time-ah! and i'm in.
it's like a private little concert, some plastic chairs, tables, a bbq with really spicy sauce, bananas, beer. allset.
there are lots of gyrating dancers, shaking their butts in ways are barely anatomically possible. guys with shirts made out of net material and i get to hop on stage and get my picture taken.  along with alice, a burmese dude and the guy who is carrying around a box of johnny walker black label, so proudly. a young michael jackson wannabe moonwalks. on gravel! and then everyone throws money at him. he has a leather codpiece.

only issue is getting home at the taxi guy is in bukavu for the weekend and the guy i found on the way in doesn't work past 11. there is car after car after UN car driving with 1 person inside -UN policy not to pick up non-UN people, they are on high alert like it's Kabul. it's ok folks, really, we're totally going to press our luck at the gas station and maybe find a kidnapper or something. so we're walking down the creepy dark road...thanks UN, thanks for watching out for me, this is great. finally someone stops and is all "jump in quick make sure no one sees you!." and i crawled into the trunk like being willfully kidnapped in a land cruiser. they had beyonce on the radio. and then i was home. thanks monusco!

Monday, September 17, 2012

old folks home

the place we are staying in samothraki is nothing like we expected, and far more than we could imagine. naturally, it looked nothing like the photos on the website, but we wandered in, curious, asking if this was the right place. the scene is a retirement home, old folks playing cards, 2 ladies processing a giant mound of green beans, knitting. there is a receiving line like at a wedding, smiles and back patting. an old lady in bifocals and brown old lady stockings waved us over and started rattling off in greek. she takes my hand, still talking and talking, pats my boyfriend quickly on the back like he's a good dog, and brings us to our room in the back of her house. she points obvisouly to the 2 separate beds with a foreboding finger. it is much...different than the bungalow we had seen on the website. our balcony is in a grove of beautiful trees, overlooking a little creek, the sound of a small waterfall and goats with bells around their necks, clinging to the hillside. on the balcony next to us is an old man in his old man underwear, scratching. we sit, a little bewildered, wondering if we should stay or not, but then again, 20€ a night is hard to beat. a few seconds later, grandma barges back in with a little tray and 2 plates of candied fruit that look like orange turds. she is talking, showing me pictures of her daughter. the turds, they are impossible to eat, hard, sticky, and kindof gross. when no one is looking, i fling mine into the woods. though this is a task because it sticks to the spoon, to my fingers, i make a mess of myself. we read in the guidebook: "usually, a welcome gift of candied fruit is brought to new guests." sounds about right. 
for the rest of our stay, we will be haunted by these candied fruits. there is a communal kitchen, in which all the grandmas cook in all day: tasty fresh goat, fragrant octopus, stewed vegetables. we will get none of this, only the candied fruit. whenever we have an idle moment, if we linger just a little too long on the patio cue the "psycho" music, here comes grandma with the candied fruit! the stray cats won't eat it, we don't know where to stash it, we must feign smiles, rub our bellies and say thank you, mmmm candied fruit!

Saturday, September 15, 2012


samothraki is a small, volcanic forested island off the coast of greece, but very close to turkey. the inhabitants can be characterized as follows:
1/3 healthy octogenarians, owing likely to their yogurt diet and regular visits to the hot springs
1/3 grungy, stinky, brown dreadlocked hippies who wear tattered rags
the rest are goats and sheep.
kind of like my native Lozère. 
the only way to get to samothraki is by a daily ferry, from the small town of alexandropoulos. this is the only link to the outside world, and the boat brings food, mail, people, doctors, business. the island has 3 busses that makes the rounds of villages from the port town, but...just like the paris-alès-florac timetable that baffled my family for decades, the schedules of the bus and the boat don't sync. ever. so when you arrive in samothraki on the boat, there is a bus that has left 20 minutes earlier. the next one is idling in the parking lot, driver chain smoking cigarettes and it will do so for another 90 minutes before it goes anywhere. every little town has a bus stop, and a paper tacked to a board that is the schedule. but i have found that this paper is the same exact one posted everywhere, with the same times all over the island, which means it must only say when the bus actually leaves the departure you have to guesstimate where you are on the route and how many cigarette breaks through the day to figure out when the bus comes. in addition, there are temporary schedules, the ones with penciled in times and dates and long story short you can wait for 3 hours for an hourly bus and it will never come. i went in to a coffee shop, to ask about the bus, pointing to the schedule near the cash register and the guy waves his hand like pashaw, bus? what bus, "you have to hitch-a-hike!" duly noted.
so we go down to the street and you don't even have to put out your hand, the first car stops, a friendly dude from category 2 driving a beat up VW van asking if he can take us somewhere. he offers me to sit on the bed, a rumpled sheet prospect as repugnant as my brother's stinky lair in high school. he asks the next question "can you roll me a joint though? because i am driving, i can't roll and drive, you know". squeezed in the front seat we set up a little factory operation with papers and tobacco. our driver rummages around the contents of the dashboard, which are as varied as the shelves of a 7-11 (except for the elusive ball of hash). everytime he reaches for something we swerve to within milimeters of the cliff, or dangerous obstacles like telephone poles or the little catholic shrines, the little houses on stone poles with lights and candles and virgin mary's in them that line all the roads. he finally compiles the necessary ingredients, including a nice seashell to mix the ingredients and starts conversation. we stop once to fill up bottles at a little natural water source, which everyone does apparently, even the fire truck which is sitting nearby.  my boyfriend asks what to do with "the rest" of hash and dude says, "use it all, man!" oh jeez, this is more than a mortal human would smoke in a month. we are dropped off in the town square, in front of busy café patios, exiting the truck along with a giant pungent plume of smoke, like a Cheech and Chong movie. doesn't seem to phase anyone. i dazily offer our driver some gas money, 2€ or so? he says proudly "no thanks man, biodiesel! patatis!!" and that is how you get around samothraki. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

real llive napoli

neopolitain: red, white, dirty...
napoli has the chaos and disdain for human life that i thought only existed in central africa or india, or places where you don't drink the water. but no, this mess is in europe, italy no less!
first, all people do is eat, or yell. the tiny streets barely let in any light through the endless layers of driying laundry, mostly bed sheets and large sized underpants with tri-syllable brand names emblazoned along the waistbands.
the eating part: as soon as we exited the train station, trying to get our bearings we were approached by a well-dressed man eating a lasagna. with his hands. no plate, no napkin, it's like someone handed him a lasagna and that was his lunch. you can imagine where the bolognaise and bechamel ended up, all over his chin, shirt, spraying my face with cheese and his friendly directions. he pointed us in the right direction with an oil and tomato soaked hand. grazie!
the traffic part:
crossing the street, we patiently waiting for the light to change, as any self respecting germans would. and we waited. i estimated about 60% of the godawful traffic actually looked at, much less obeyed any street light. the only way to cross is to stand with a bold local napolitain, and strategically position yourself so they will take the brunt of the impact from the hood of a fiat. but even my bold napolitain didn't prevent a scooter rider - who was texting on his phone AND arguing with his girlfriend riding behind him- from nearly running over my toes, then honking at me and berating me before speeding off and resuming his multi-tasking. even when we did cross at a light in front of traffic obeyers, they still honk and yell at eachother. and they are probably eating pizza. this is napoli.
sidewalks, or whatever part of the street you are able to walk on do not make you immune from the constant barrage of elbow banging, knee swiping traffic. as a pedestrian, you slide along the buildings, back to the wall like you are inching along a ledge 5 stories up. as shirtless men with big hairy bellies watch you from their balconies.
the dangerous part:
at one point i had the brilliant suggestion of taking a side-street, as a possible temporary respite from the deadly, unrelenting traffic and endless parade of slow walking fatties (everyone wears heels, no matter how fat). looked calm enough. low and behold, here come 2 scooters, arguing with eachother, a machismo fueled event that inevitably devolves into a fist fight. one guy is punched in the face, scooter falls over. instead of picking up the scooter though, he is rummagin for a gun, well, more like trying to wrangle it from his waist band, but it gets stuck between his pink lacoste polo shirt and the fatty folds of his hairy belly, but eventually, it comes out, a shiny black pistol aimed squarely at the other guy. there is screaming, crying..some tension...suddenly me and 50 other people are all watching, in a nanosecond i can't tell if i'm on my couch, watching HDTV, is this showtime or AMC? and i reach over for my drink, or the remote to save this channel (good, real live action!), i realize, wait, this isn't an episode of the Sopranos, i am directly in the line of fire - this is real live napoli! run!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

italy: i can't believe i ate all that

i need new pants.
so it's my third time in frascati and i know the lay of the land a bit, there's the boulevard overlook where all the young couples make out, the little puppet theater, the market square with the slices of pig in a glass case for sale. tonight i scoped out a new osteria, a little semi-underground place with wooden beamed ceilings, couples holding hands with their miniature dobermans underfoot. 

i was a little jittery - our meeting that day had no less than 3 espresso breaks before lunch. i had a hankerin' for some italian food. the only sensible way to approach a roma-area menu as a mortal human without an intergalactic appetite is to choose 2 of the 4 least menacing courses. you have your starters, your first, second courses and dessert. i find only the starter/first or first/dessert combination do-able. anthing less and i just feel bad, like a person who goes to a bar and just orders water. i avoid the second course entirely, as it is usually a giant plate of meat. which you then need to accompany with a side of potatoes and then game over.

so here i was, ordering by pointing and hand signals. i didn't even read the first platti menu past the "vongole" and selected what i thought was an appropriate entrée. when i ordered, the waiter made a "wow" face with his eyes, as if i told him i just ran an ironman triathlon - a look which was surely a premonition. i made the international symbol for "tiny," pinching my fingers when ordering a wine. apparently, the waiter man interpreted this as "cheapest" not, "smallest quantity" of wine and i found myself with a full liter of almost underinkable frascati frizzante. which i drank.

and so came the meal. a giant plate of proscuitto, tomato bruschetta with a entire ball of buffalo mozzarella. which i ate. 

at one point the waiter came to make smalltalk and all i can do when people speak italian is to answer in some sort of spanish. then they ask me where in spain i come from and then i say in an american accent that i am french, living in germany and their face melts with confusion and they give up.

i avoid at all costs saying that i am american, as there is a couple who recently snuck through the door, and are trying to order, and the woman, who is a perfect imitation of george costanza's mother says "Vongoleeys. Gary! i can't have clams! i'm allergic to clams you know that! if i eat clams i'll swell up and die! you want me to die gary?" and just so we are on the same page, she is not talking about clams, she is screaming about "clayams!" and of course, with no regard for the fact that the waiter understandahs the englishah she screams "gary! tell 'em i can't eat clams!" and gary dutifully repeats in english that his wife can't have clams.  i do not come from america.   

after the meal my plates are cleared (formerly thick spaghetti with the hole through it, in a sea of olive oil, tomato, garlic and clayams) and with a look of proud approval, waiter asks if i want a liquore, limoncello, to which i cannot say no. so then he is distributing a tray with little glasses of yellow to the other patrons, too, except for me, he hands me an entire wine glass of the stuff, in correlation with my frascati reputation i guess.

which i drank.
i requested the bill, and he asks, no no senora, are you sure-ah you don't wantah some more limoncello? della casa! how about a litro? and he makes my little pinching hand motion. um, no grazie. i can barely walk!

Friday, August 24, 2012

my baskets are coming home

i had dinner with a friend last night who kept asking me why i don't live in africa, because of how funny i find everything all the time. and i asked him, doesn't it get boring?
so i need a vessel to transport my baskets. i was imaging the big nylon bags the locals are alyways piling up at the airport, full of "imports." basically a big rice bag.
so at my lunch break i wandered up the street to the little row of lebanese convenience stores. they're each the same, with plastic baskets, brooms and free-standing fans all crowding the doors. the first had a faux-hawked metrosexual youngster behind the elevated counter (at the level of my neck), in his hot pink "I'm hot" t-shirt, thumbing with his three blackberries and grooving to the deafening Jay-Z.
i found some soap, a request from home (did you know 3/4 of the soaps here are "whitening"? scary), though it says "savon de marseille" on it, and it's a big block my mom probably pays 20 times as much for in France. when i handed it to him, he did a little cocktail move and tossed it over his head and caught it behind his back, after doing a spin. nice. he was super friendly until some poor old gabonese lady came limping in to which he pointed and screamed, check your bag, you're not coming in here with that! very rude. i noticed this only pertained to people of the, uh, darker skin variety. everyone else was more than welcome to saunter in with their vegetables.
anyway, as i explained what i wanted he waved me off yeah yeah i know - barouuuuuuuu! and called his slow-walking zombie employee who took me in the back aisle where we climbed over piles of shower curtains and doormats and then s l o   o     ww    l  y   went through like, 15 different gift bags, like what you give someone a CD in and showed them to me. too small, i need big! big like i want to carry a pig!
"this one has a pig on it."
no, not piglet from winne the pooh, a big bag, like a RICE BAG.
so he takes me to the 20 kilos of rice section.
i just want the empty bag.
"vous voulez durisdedans?"
no, just the bag.
the guy looks around all nervous...can't compute!
i finally found what i wanted across the street (for free! unbelievable) and it's actually a cool rice bag with chinese writing and shrimp on it, so i was in a real good mood. i hopped along through a little kid's street soccer game and tried to show off my mad dribbling skills, but i accidentally kicked the ball in to the sewer. the nasty, open, rotten, sewer with dead cats in it. errrr i had to back away as they glared at me, (i'm wearing white, there's no WAY i'm going down there) so i went the other way and passed my peanuts-in-a-bottle lady who was all, "hey where's your baskets?" like, she thinks i carry them around every day? i bought some peanuts, and then remembered i had this 5,000 unit cell phone credit thingie i won't use, and i handed it to her, maybe you can use this? it's 10 bucks worth or something, so she threw her hands up in the air and cheered "5 mille unitééééééés!" and gyrated her hips in a sexy way i thought was only possible on tv, and then "i'm closed for today!" well, me too lady, i'm outta here, we're off to the beach!

basket buyers anonymous

hi my name is aurelgrooves, and i'm here today because i'm addicted to baskets. i just keep buying, and buying, and buying, today i spent my perdiem on baskets, not on food and i have no idea how i'm going to bring these back on a plane.
also in this photo, dead cockroach #362