Monday, April 29, 2013

i brought back a ton of fabrics from congo

so if you are looking for something to re-upholster your couch or a new snazzy dress, look no further than aurelgrooves new etsy shop! lots of fabrics from my recent congo market expedition, more soon...

Sunday, April 14, 2013

dubai is pretty nuts

so take just about everything in kinshasa, turn it inside out and backwards and you have dubai.
over the sound of the prayers you have non-stop consumerism (during Eid the malls are open 24 hours), flashy, clean, bright, connected, everything.
a colleague took me all around and all
i could think of was being in that board room, where the idea guy presents to a prince or whatever looking bored, his convoy of bentleys idling outside.
and the presenter, nervous, hands shaking as he controls the powerpoint presentation is all, how about we have a lagoon with these fountains, and every 30 minutes we blast a song, maybe michael jackson's thriller, or o sole mio, or never say goodbye, and these water jets, well they spray and shoot water along with the music. 
and the prince is all, whatever, ok, sounds good, you have my blessing go do it and leaves. 
and that's the fountain you have in front of tha tallest building thing, and it's just ridiculous. 
there are all these crazy aquariums in malls and hotels, and i seriously wonder if there isn't a secret genetic lab somewhere underground where they are engineering real live mermaids. because that's just about the only thing missing in dubai. real. live. mermaids.
just add bad music..

Saturday, April 13, 2013

taking a bunch of kinshasa with me...

Ok, so Ethiopian airlines to Addis. 
The cabin was somehow segregated...white people in the front, Ethiopians in the middle and Congolese in the back. Except for me, I'm in the back.
First interesting thing is how they don't tell you that you stop in Brazzaville. So the plane takes off from Kinshasa, hangs out weird and low in the sky and doesn't go higher, it sort of floats over the city, people glued to the windows and then about 4 minutes after take off "cabin crew prepare for landing" I'm freaking out, omg an emergency?! But people seem pretty relaxed and we gently land in Brazza less then 10 minutes after takeoff. Probably the softest international flight ever.
We pick up some more people in Brazza and we're on our way. Meanwhile, the back of the plane is pretty much like my little hood in Kinshasa. All thats missing is a slaughtered goat. There's music playing out of crappy cell phone speakers (even during take-off and landing), dudes sitting on armrests with their big red Ethiopian airlines headphones around their necks and heads like they are djs. There are card games, texting, secret hand shakes. do they think this is a bus? I walk through to go the bathroom and I had to squeeze through a bunch of guys, just like in a club or cafe, where they purposefully block your way so you have to push them aside, like they want you to touch them...and it's all, hmmmmm kissss hey sexy baby where you flying to
-ughhhh addis, we're on the same plane
And then lip smacking and hmmmm hmm yummy mondele sounds. Really, guys? the plane is full of white people, i think the whole mondele thing ends at the gate...
Later, some Syrian diamond smuggler or whatever comes by and leans over my seat with his "haven't I've seen you before routine" and gives me his card and wants to take me to dinner in Dubai. This is not the dreamliner i was expecting..
The duty free woman gets practically overrun by this mob and now there is a Johnny walker black label party. I have another bottle of wine and am floating in and out of sleep and I hallucinate one of the street walker vendors in Kinshasa. Did I tell you how they have signature sounds to sell their wares? The shoe polishers bang their brushes together. The bread person bangs a flat knife against the large metal bowl on his head and the bag o water guy makes a long kissy sucking noise. So when you're on the street, you just follow your ears. my ears are saying gah! make this stop!
My logistics guy serge is a big airport time underestimator. He sets up your ride to the airport at the last possible minute, my last kinshasa visitor called me at 5 am Easter Sunday, freaking out- my flight leaves in less than 1.5 hours and I'm still waiting at the hotel!!"
Relax, serge will be there. 
And somehow, yeah, he'll sneak you into the customs line with minutes to spare.
on my way out of town, I notice the airport fly by to my left and we keep driving....where are we going?
You can't leave Kinshasa without liboke in your stomach (recall my first ever meal in kin in 2007 was a thanks giving dinner liboke at the grand hotel. haven't really had a memorable one since...)
Ummm, ok, but I'm kind of checking luggage and don't have my boarding pass...
"It's ok, Ethiopians are never on time."
So 20 minutes further, we're in a little bustling town of kinkole and down by the river, tons of Mamans are waving us over, pointing to their drum barrel BBQs with banana leaf wrapped goodies.
Serge orders and even though its only 930 am, ok, I'll have some grilled stew was delicious, spicy, even though I don't like spicy, with onions, fish heads fins and all, floating in this tasty oily broth. 
pre-check-in meal
spicy fishy goodness
i'm nervously checking the time and Serge goes to pay and then disappears in what he calls "market reconnaissance" and goes to all these different vendors, comparing prices of manioc leaves. He loves manioc leaves. Staple of his diet he says, even through its super bland he can't go a day without his manioc. He comes back with a little kid carrying heaps of leaves on his head. We load up the car and he presents me with a dried gourd, which has a tiny bottle of amarula plugging the top.
This is what we keep the booze in, he says. it's naturally thermal - keeps it cool.
It's excellent.
At the airport everyone is all high giving me, hoot and hollering-can I get a sip mondele?? 
In the plane I am gourd girl.
Come bring your gourd girlfriend we'll fill it up with our friend Johnny! Says a man with his toothless grin, nah it's ok, I'm good, but how about a 400franc tip for the DJ? 
Right on sister, nice shirt! I'm wearing one of my African creations.
So long Kinshasa, ride with me until addis and i'll see you again in may!

Friday, April 12, 2013

expat dinner party!

tonight i was invited to an expat dinner party. it's not very often that you, as a visitor can get asked for dinner at someone's house on a weekend, because it's a bit of a downer if they have to pick you up and drive you home after. driving home at 11pm is not annoying just because your host is probably drunk, it's that everyone else is drunk, and the angry drunk homeless people angry drunk police officers and who knows a van full of people that doesn't have brakes might just happen along or a rock comes through your window. but me, i'm "autonomme." i didn't have the guts to drive myself around - i just have a lot more taxi numbers, including justin, who only works nights and has a voice like barry white. so now i'm everyone's favorite guest because i'm not the same boring people they have out with every weekend. oh, also, there's apparently some UN guy with a penthouse apartment with a giant rooftop somewhere downtown and throws a killer monthly party with hundreds of people. i need to find out when the next one is.  
anyway, expat party. basically a bunch of sexy house wives whose husbands are on a mission in Goma or something and they try and make gourmet food with kinshasa ingredients. lots of white wine. though there's apparently a new supermarket called the "extra super" market. best prosciutto in town. things are changing. 
at one point they started talking about all the congolese with funny names. the tennis pro yannick noah look-alike who teaches all these ladies is called "pavé" (cobblestone). another one works for a minister whose name is "baveau" which has the root word for "drool." another has a cleaning woman named "culotte." and on and on. 
so then i put on some music, which they like, and they complain that in kinshasa bars you never heard any european dance music for a change, it's always, always african style grinding stuff. so we start talking about neighborhoods we should go to for a change, and one time i went to bandal, and it's all outdoor patios and pretty fun and maybe there some more interesting clubs. but a bunch of white girls can't just roll into bandal. we need someone to take us. how about pavé?!! screeches and screams we are totally calling pavé and going to bandal!! i think pavé just won the lottery. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

commander gardener

so the landlord sent his gardener over while marie was away. once again - stay away from the basil!
basil? those are weeds, madame.
it's basil! taste!
the gardener calls himself "le comandant." (the commander?). and speaks of himself in the 3rd person:
if i give you my keys, commander, how will i get in later?
the commander never leaves his post.
ok, so i can call you or whatever?
the commander always answers his phone.

but the conversation was weird because the commander was all, don't you remember? we talked about this last month? and then i realized he thinks i'm marie, because we all look the same (and more often, they all think we are chinese).
the commander brought over some new trees to plant and they are...pine trees? like the ones you line fences in more appropriately temperate climates.
why aren't you planting palm trees or something, are you sure these things grow here?
the commander wants you to feel at home, madame.
why would we fly all the way here just to be in a place that looks like home?!

turns out marie is allergic to juniper, that's what they are and she has them removed almost as soon as they are planted. we both cae out of the house to supervise and the gardener helper guy hid beind a rock screaming oh my god, there are two of them!!"

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

celine is the iron lady

today i arranged some more meetings with ministers and brought my colleagues didier and serge along. mostly because i am trying to stop serge from disappearing from the office like he usually doesn, and because didier wears real snazzy shirts and suits, and has a car. the office has run out of cash, and no cash means no gas, and so the drivers are all up in arms so you can't get driven anywhere in the office land cruiser.
i don't know how the conversation started but it was about margaret thatcher, and serge is a little older and he was deadpan serious when he said she changed his life. i seriously think a tear welled up in his eyes. i was totally making fun of him for it when didier said "but the real iron lady is celine dion!" and turned up the stereo. all of us, including some lady we picked up who needed a ride were suddenly screaming the lyrics of the titanic song, windows open, all wearing our sunglasses, mine of the jackie-o variety and the boys with their tom cruise aviators.
it must have been an odd sight because even the scrubby kids who beg at your window and snatch whatever they can from inside your car stayed far far away. good to know.
the meeting was in the fabulous oldest building in kinshasa, which formerly had the titanic-style indian restaurant up top with the super scary elevator. well the indians are gone, it's all ministry of environment, and the elevator is out of service :(
use at your own risk?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

shouldn't get used to this...

marie had to go to her project site, so i had to house to myself all weekend.

i thought it would be a nice touch to have it all clean when she got back - uh no, i wasn't going to do it myself, so stop thinking that - so i called jean, the little ironing guy to come by. i say little because seriously, he comes up to my shoulders, i'm finally taller than someone! he is a bit of a neat freak, and constantly criticizes everything in front of marie "those dishes! unfolded clothes!" and does everything but call her a slob. she only lets him iron, and i have to say, the house is a bit messy. i'd like to walk around barefoot on the tile once in a while so i asked jean to come and tidy up.
he was pretty happy actually, like finally i will bring some order into this place! made the beds and everything, while nodding his head in disapproval, and clicking his mouth like, "i can't believe these people." before he irons, he puts on these huge bifocal reading glasses. in one of my skirt pockets, he found a 50 franc bill and ironed that, too. handed it back to me, steaming hot, nodding as he does, thinking...these white people, so careless with their money, too!... after ironing he brings the items into my room, but i don't have any hangers. so i fold it up and put it on the shelf and i thought he was going to spit at me - folding his perfectly ironed items! he grabs me, madame!! sorry jean, look! i'm hanging it, here. back away...
the one thing you can't let jean touch is the garden, though. his idea of weeding is pulling up all the plants marie just put in so no garden, today, jean. he really wants to sweep the grass and i must tell him, no.

meanwhile, my friend carla and her seamstress came over and together we designed a whole new set of clothes for me with all the fabric i bought. because on thursday, i skiddadled out of the office with jolie, who works the cafe at the office, she says her mom sells pagnes, which are the 6m long african print fabics. and so i called my taxi bernard (my deaf, adorable papy replacement who NEVER has gas! i pay him and make him promise to put gas in the car but he never does and sometimes we need to stop and he pulls a jug out of the trunk...he philosophizes that this is more efficient or something). anyway, jolie takes us to the grand marché, just about exactly where i got mugged last year...but this time i literally had nothing but a 50$ bill in my bra. joli takes us through this cavernous maze of vendors, i would have never found my way out if i needed and we're in this one place where everyone, EVERYONE is selling fabric. it's called the universe of pagnes, logically. we get to jolie's mother's stand. it's deathly hot, and all the women are fighting for my business. i left out of there 100$ lighter and 100m of fabric heavier.

fabric lady
So carla's seamstress came over and we sat in the gazebo and she took my measurements for miniskirts, pants, dresses, and pillowcases. you name it. and yes, i will have a dress that matches my pillows.
there's a catalog you can look at, with vuluptuous models.  i have to remind them i don't got that cleavage or butt, ladies...everything is customizable. i don't know what to choose, carla pretty much decides for me. the seamstress is noting everything and saying in a worrying tone, "you want it lined, too? it's gonna cost you..."

the catalog...
a custom made long dress is 10$.
i threw in a dress for carla so by next friday we'll have matching outfits! with hot pink and neon orange spirals.i should make tennis dresses for me and tanya.
when jean left, i didn't really know how much to pay him. marie gives him 15$ for ironing, no wonder why he wants to come every day! i threw in an extra 10, which is practicaly what i pay my putzfrau back in berlin. jean said he wished i would stay in kinshasa forever and ever and never go back to germany and my house would be so clean i could walk barefoot all the time. my thoughts sway to the singing coming from one of the churches nearby, the sounds of parakeets and car horns and i might be getting a bit too used to living in kinshasa...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

making cheese in mankoto

so one of our projects is to manage a very large national park in the middle of nowhere in congo. the position was open for a few years, because there's very few people out there crazy enough to do it. you need to move to the middle of nowhere (a village of 2000 souls called mankoto, look it up) where there are poachers, people who want to kill you, weird evangelical indigenous groups, lots of poverty, corruption, no power, etc. etc.
well after years of having no one for this job, finally, this american guy from the midwest goes for it. his french is as about good as my dad's, however, he's this really good natured adventurous guy, and as it turns out, a bit of a foodie (he also takes excellent photos)
so he moves to this village, which has the food diversity of a congolese KFC. so he brings a few ingredients from home, plants a garden, and wants to make his own mozzarella. not so hard apparently, fresh cheese, you basically need a stove, a fridge (he has a generator), some citric acid, some culture, and some milk. most of the village is hooked on powdered milk, all you see are cans and cans of white powder, even though there are cows and goats everywhere. weird, right? so he goes to the village chief and asks if he can get some milk from the goats and cows. the chief looks at him in utter incomprehension. so maybe it's the french, or maybe it's that these people have never milked their cows or goats? 
it's the latter. 
so the american guy is all, no, really, it's easy, let me show you, fresh milk! this is how you milk a goat, and a cow, and the village, they all gather around and they are obviously uncomfortable, looks of horror on their faces, covering the children's eyes like they are watching really terrible porn. why this analogy? because they apparently equate udders with sex organs. they basically think this white man is masturbating their livestock. and so you can imagine he's all, look everyone, milk!! you can drink it! and they don't think it's milk. and he makes cheese with it, and eats it. so let's just say that the relationship now between our park manager and the village is just plain weird.
the village people now cannot fathom the sight of this recently milked animal, so they kill it. and the best part? is that they kill a cow, and to them, all cow parts are equal. you pay by the piece. so filet mignon or nose, same shit, for them it all goes into a pot and voila. so the american guy is all cool, awesome! and takes the absolute best cuts of the rump and ribs and goes home happy, paying the same price as he would for tripe and having entrecote for dinner. so, not a bad gig, right? 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

i'm cursed.

the other night when we were at the café, waiting for the power to come back, marie told me another story about this village she works with. there was this guy who had a lot of bad stuff happen to him, car accident, malaria, and then the big ticket: he got struck by lightning. of the three people that were with him at the time, 2 ran for the hills, and the third had the guts to fight through the evil spirits and bring him to a clinic.
so it's obvious someone put a curse on him. before he paid for a goat and a ritual, he invited every single person he knew to his house and had a big conferenceto ask "which one of you has something against me?" and well, i guess it came to light that he slept with some guy's wife or something, and they sorted it out so in the end, problem solved. he hasn't been struck by lightning since.
as for me, it seems nearly every day something goes wrong. every place i have stayed in has had unusually long power and water outages, even for congo. i constantly forget one essential item for my workday, like computer power cable, there are the angry ministers who kick me out of their offices, having to go to the bathroom at the most inopportune times, my non-stop sweating, itchy eyes, and my tennis game. ok, i haven't played in over a year but still, i'm absolutely awful. i'm amazed these italians and afghan UN guys still let me play with them. we've actually started mixed doubles and i am paired with this tall congolese woman tanya who hangs around the courts. she's my venus williams. she has long nails and wears the super short nike dress things, tons of jewelry, even a fake diamond tiara. she curses in lingala when she messes up, which is not often. most of the time she is saying, come on aurelgrooves! let's do this! she seems to barely move, it's almost like she's in slow motion, but she's somehow all over the court, she even covers my side, and half the points i don't even play (my net game is pretty good though). she doesn't even sweat. i, meanwhile, am a human puddle. anyway, tanya and i, "les dames" have been winning and moving up the ladder tournament at this shabby hotel. before i commit to reserving more court time though and sacrifice a goat, i need to know, who out there has something against me?

Friday, April 5, 2013

welcome to the hood

the trucks
the bar (and trucks)
the house! (thankfully construction on the one behind doesn't move so fast...)
so let me tell you about this neighorhood i live in. there's a flour factory or something, of which apparently the president owns shares in, and well it means the factory can just do what it wants with this neighborhood, and so there are giant 18 wheeler trucks parked everywhere. i mean everywhere.there's no sidewalk anymore, there's trucks. trucks on both sides so that even a third truck can barely pass through and sometimes 2 trucks meet in the middle and there's nothing to do. maybe that's why there are so many motorcycle taxis, right on this block. you either take a motorcycle, or walk. and it's best not to walk on the street because that's the best way to get your foot run over by one of these trucks. so, you find a suitable opening and just swing under the trailer to the other side. it's shady and cool underneath so sometimes you'll have someone sleeping under there, or drying their laundry, or just hanging out and smoking weed and offering you some.

you'd think that because of this nice flour factory with presidential influence there would be a bit better electricity provision. or maybe that's the whole reason why all the houses lie in the dark in the evenings, because the factory sucks it all up, glowing in its well lit glory. so when marie and i get home from work and the streets are all dark, we meet at the little pharmacy/bar on the corner. usually, when the bar has no power, the house has no power, and so you sit at the bar and wait for it to light up. you wouldn't want to actually be here when there's power because they blast this really obnoxious music and it's rather unpleasant. so instead it's dark, dusty, but it's mellow, people come by and sell you peanuts and cigarettes and adidas sneakers and whatever you want. no one cares that we are the only white people for miles. there are constant traffic jams, people honking, and getting angry and jumping out of their cars and yelling at one of the sleeping truck drivers. i'm pretty certain one day someone is going to just plow into these plastic chairs. but also, i've started to become accustomed to the chaos, i almost don't even notice it anymore. or that i'm sweating through 3 layers of clothes, my toes are covered in mud and i keep jumbles of dirty cash in my pockets and that's how i pay for stuff.
there are some guys at the corner with a goat who are always trying to get enough people interested in eating goat to kill it. they also have chickens, and we keep telling them, tomorrow, tomorrow we'll come eat. but it's kinda gross so we decide what we are going to cook back at the house, based on whether there is power or not. it's a choice between headlamp salad (i wear my headlamp gangsta style while i chop avocados) or if we are lucky, will i cook a ton of cooker-jules style rice. but for now it can wait, this huge 1 liter beer is only 1$ and so we just drink and order more cold ones (these people are smart and keep their beers in the freezer so they are always cold) until the music comes on.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

bonobos are just like us!

we went to the bonobo sanctuary and had an amazing day. we saw it all, the eating, fighting, playing and the sex. insane.
to get there i hired my new taxi hook up to take me and some nasa visitors in his huge fancy 4x4. and as a reward for his hard work during the week, i invited serge, my local logistics guy. he has never seen them. living in kinshasa and not seeing the bonobos is like growing up in new york and never going to coney island!
as we are driving there he was calling all his friends and all i heard was "range rover" and "bonobos" and "my colleague" (that's me).
so we get there and the bonobos are just running around and acting crazy it's just like watching children. serge says "but they are just like mini humans!" and i say, i know! all that separates us is some thousands of years of evolution and serge is all, woah, nope, nuh-uh, evolution, shmevolution, god created us and god created these guys and that's it.
and so i ask him, don't you think it's a little weird then, that god would create creatures that are so similar to us? with their hands and their faces and their identical dna?
just a little more evolution and i would make guacamole from this avocado
and right then, one of the bonobos goes and speed humps a male, then a female and then another male, and then jumps up and down and screams and climbs a tree.
serge says "but we can't climb trees like that, they are in no way related to us," and walks away.
this is how it's done, boy!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

no gracias

sooo this latino guy on the plane got my digits and asked me to go out on Saturday. So we were texting back and forth making plans and yeah, I was bragging to everyone in the office, like, I got a date, hombres, and he drives a Nissan Prado. And so everyone at the office is all ooh la chica quiere besos de Juan and even the driver dudes are trying to speak Spanish, haha you all are very funny.
So on Saturday I'm texting the guy and he's all, I'll call you after my futbol match and I never hear from him again.
Now, if this happens in a normal country, you're like whatever he's a jerk but in Kinshasa you start to wonder...did he get kidnapped? Killed? Car accident? Malaria? Typhoid? And that kinda drives you crazy.
So after a few sleepless nights, on Monday the office is all ooooh besos besos and I have to tell them, no, he did a conejo (spanishafied for "posé un lapin") and then they are all, hahha la chica no esta guapa! and they are making fun of me like i'm this loser who got stood up and so I had to set them straight: no, the only reason he didn't call is that he's dead or almost, obvi, because I am not a loser, thank you. so you should all feel really sorry for yourselves.
And well, turns out the guy isn't dead (he came to my workshop and made some lame excuse like he called but I didn't answer), but for the next 2 weeks I'm certainly going to have to make my officemates think he is!

Monday, April 1, 2013

new kinshasa digs

so i moved out from the italians house. couldn't handle the downtown madness from 5am to midnight non stop horns, screaming, etc... turns out my friend marie has a sweet little bungalow with a spare room and a giant yard, not too far from the office. perfect.
i get there with my bags and this miniature man is ironing, ironing like he has the nobel prize in ironing. he is explaining to me, how he perfectly irons underwear and socks. i'm like, ok, yeah thanks we don't need to iron my stuff, really it's ok! and marie is like no no no you can have these worms in your laundry, so you iron to kill the worms. ok then! so i follow jean claude some more as he makes a t-shirt into a perfect cube. 
marie's boyfriend was leaving town for a month though, so we needed jean claude was eager to mention that his son, nelson (a.k.a. mandela) might be free to be a nightwatchman. ok, send him over.  
so nelson shows up that night and we set him up in the yard, in the little gazebo precisely and do our thing. an hour later we hear snores from his little makeshift bed and we go over and this man is dead to the world. we are nudging him, kicking him, clapping in front of his face, nothing. 
finally, he awakes. 
so nelson, we're not paying to sleep, buddy, and he's like, yes madame yes madame and he turns up his radio and we go inside.
next night, same thing.
next night after that, same thing. 
so finally on the fourth night, i'm getting dropped off and knocking, knocking, knocking on the gate. all the other guards are in their little chair posts and screaming, mandela! open the door! 
mandela is sleeping.
so marie opens up and we nudge him awake and it's like, hey, nelson, if you are going to be a night guard, you need to be able to, i don't know, be awake, and maybe defend against intruders?
so he complains that he doesn't have a machete, and if he had a machete, well then he would be more apt to defend the house and stay awake. as he is saying this, he is zorro-ing his phrases with an invisible machete sword "if a guy comes in here, i cut him! if he runs away, i will run after him and cut off his hands! if i reach his house, i will cut off his mother's hands!" and so on.
marie is not convinced. no no no she says, i will not wake up to cadavres in my garden. no blood! a machete is out of the question. and i'm like, marie, it's just talk, he won't actually kill anyone.
and she's like no no no, when a congolese threatens to kill someone, they really want to, you don't joke around.
marie tells me about how she was in this village last week, and this farmer was really upset that someone had killed his cow, so he went to marie's project office and asked for money to have a shaman curse ritual on the perpetrator, sacrifice a goat and make the man's life miserable, and if that didn't work he would request some money to put a little gang together and kill the guy. and marie is all, our project is here to help you guys protect and use the forest and i'm sorry, but assassinations are not really in the budget. 
and the man was all, it's ok, i will kill him myself. and he did. apparently, they are serious about their threats.
so mandela, you don't get a machete.
and he's all, whatever, i don't care! i'll burn him! if a guy comes in here, i'll burn him alive!" woah, woah, mandela, let's relax, you will not burn anyone alive. and so marie starts talking about a lead pipe, and how a lead pipe might be ok because it's more a weapon of defence than offence and more blunt force trauma than blood, but i'm more interested in knowing how mandela wants to burn someone alive.
he's says "easy" you tie him up and then get 2 tires (tires are indeed easy to find) put them around his chest and then you dump a little gasoline on him and light it, easy. 
so we left mandela to his fencing practice and i put "lead pipe" on the shopping list on the fridge.