Monday, September 30, 2013

weekend travels to bandundu

We arrive to nioki airfield, a dusty piece of dirt amidst random huts and houses. We were significantly delayed at the migration (note that it’s not called immigration) office (oh, my old friends, the DGM!) who sat in their hut with our passport literally spent 57 minutes copying our the numbers into old notebooks. The bathrooms consisted of 3.5 pieces of zinc leaning shabbily together – but padlocked? So I peed behind a termite hill, upon which our truck was awkwardly parked on a slant. I realize later it’s because the battery is dead and it doesn’t start on its own, it needs a push. Which is tons of fun when you’re in a middle of a village with every kid for miles screaming mondele! Mondele! 

Anyway, it’s time to shop for food. My logistics guy doesn’t really seem to comprehend the conundrum of buying overpriced food for 10 people for 3 days in a place where they have never seen 100$ bills. He buys a few bottles of water, some crackers and is all, let’s go! Um, no. I’m in this weird store that could have been something on H street in DC, where you order fried chicken from the asians behind the bullet proof glass? Well here i am sticking my bills into the holes of a chainlink fence with indians on the other side. You point to things on the wall, or the faded, dusty packages in display cases. I am doing calculations, sweating profusely while all these people are staring at me, and the town drunk starts doing an amusing dance and attracts a crowd. The only bottles of potable water are little 300ml things and according to my calculation we need like, 200 of them. Moving on tot he next place…i finally find a place with 1.5L bottles but the price is outrageous so i send my congolese guy in to order for me, and a boy to carry everything on his head back to the car.
On this main street is mostly flip flops, matches, plastic items like buckets and salt for sale, it’s behind this where all the real fresh action is. we head through a dank dingy walkway to the meat and vegetable market. Here i am greeted with cheers and shouts – come buy my crocodile! Whaaaaa? This woman proudly shows me her croc head, chopped up boa, antilope, you name it.
croc for sale

She doesn’t mind my photographer, who has to constantly swat flies from his lens. This one woman keeps pointing to a baby and saying mondele! Mondele! And hands me the baby. So now i am bargaining for rice, with this adorable baby in my arms. We wander around some more for onions, spices, peppes and manioc. The boy is back and piling all the things onto his head.
We get back tot he vehicle, where the driver is replaced the oil filters and other things with some supplies we brought from Kinshasa.  we start tossing everything on the roof of the truck like a train in india. And we’re off on our 6 hour drive. the women get to ride up front while 8 guys are unhappily crammed in the back. They complain the ENTIRE time. I remind them that the gear shift is between my legs and everytime we shift it’s rather uncomfortable but no. They say it’s too bumpy, too hot, too this too that. The press guys are not ready for this. We are in congo! you can’t get anywhere without at least 6 hours of mind-numbing spine crunching 4x4 ing!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

me and my peeps

normally, when you take a picture like this the organizers stand in the middle, flanked by the most important this case, all my german colleagues vanished to go take a smoke, and as i stood next to head of the department of sustainable development, our major partner in the project, the pesky civil aviation guys (who have assured me repeatedly that my permits will be approved quickly and easily - i'll be checking in on ) edged themselves in for the photo. anyway, does this look like a miss congo pageant...?

Friday, September 27, 2013

i am NOT sorry

so this week has been mostly around the official launch of our project. to officially launch a project you need to have a workshop where you invite all the important people, especially some ministers to make comments and get paid perdiems, then you give people free lunch and a chance for them to complain at length about the project. and this is what we did. and we even gave out free t-shirts. people go nuts over t-shirts. there was actually a small mob scene and i told my assistant several times to order xxxl. sigh. though of course, this being a workshop, the same photographer guy shows up and takes pictures 2 inches from your face, with a flash and then goes and prints them and then displays them and sells them for outrageous prices. people love the photos too. the thing to do is buy the photo of someone and then give it to them. though people always buy up the photos of me (cuz of my awesome congolese threads, for sure) and then when i go their office it's like, oh that's me! this photographer never really catches the best moment tho, you always have your eyes half open, or you're picking your ear with your pen. so you get these low quality prints that look something like this:
thrilled to be here!

anyway, at one point i see the photographer quickly packing up and running off and even though i have my fancy press team with professional photos, everyone loves bad photoguy. so i ask my project manager, mina, this wonderfully organized and productive korean woman we hired to run our project in kinshasa. and she is all outraged, he was taking photos and selling them! really expensive!
yes, mina, i know, but this is what they do, it's a congolese thing, people love the pictures.
so i manage to call the photographer back before he is hastily, angrily deleting all the photos and even better, i negotiate to have everything put on a cd and delivered to the office for 10 bucks.
mina comes to me later "so i called the photographer and asked him to let me copy his memory stick for 100$." oh mina, you have not been in kinshasa long enough... 
the funniest though, was a few days before the workshop mina sent around the updated agenda and participants list to all the 120 or so people we invited. well somewhere in there, we had a very important guy listed in the speakers list, but not in the list of participants and so he replied-all (everyone replies all, especially the people who reply-all "your message has been received, thank you") complaining that he was forgotten, and his organization is so important and blah blah blah. so my project manager, who does not have the most fluent french, but does ok sends around a response, but jumbles the words and write "sincerement, je m'excuse pas de vous avoir mis dans la liste" essentially saying "i would like to sincerely say, that i am NOT sorry." this goes to everyone, EVERYONE! even the secretary general of the ministry of environment. so then it's 100 rounds of message received, messaged received, message received until someone is all "wait, i think she meant to say she WAS sorry" message received message received message received and there are hundreds of messages, and whenever you get something that is more than 5KB your email is essentially jammed for the entire day. gah. so finally i send a SINCERE apology and tell them they won't be sorry to have attended our workshop heheh! and we have all been giving her a hard time and laughing about it, because i'm sure more embarassing things have happened.
but ending on a touching note, i since received several, simple, reply-to's! just to me! is it even possible? from someone like a cabinet minister telling me things like, we are all working here together in congo towards the same goal, and we are connected in our hearts and understand eachother, we do not need words to express that. nawwwww.   

Thursday, September 26, 2013

omba vs. papi

so i think i've told you about omba, he is our go-to man for flight permits and stuff. he is very calm, sounds like barry white, drives a prado and has a bluetooth thing in his ear. the way he drives (like 10km/hr and never uses his horn) is sortof like the way he negotiates. very passive. he needs a little papi in him, don't back down!
so low and behold our plane is finally in range. we're launching our project at a big workshop with all the ministers, i'm shaking hands, posing for photos in my awesome congolese outfit to which everyone says with a kind of sleezy tone "you need a congolese man to go with that."  
omba's man at the airport says a cessna has just landed at n'dolo.
but i can't go, i need to stay here! so i send my photographer edouard who is only really here to get footage and photos of the plane (not sapeurs and wrestlers, those are side projects). so i send edouard to go without me. we do a quick check of what he needs, copy of passport, spare batteries, photo/video permit...and bribe money. as they get into the prado i call out "receipts for everything!"
6 hours later, i see a visibly distraught omba, the sweaty pilot and engineer in their blue overalls with south african flags on it, edouard was dropped off at home. the plane was supposed to be back in Brazzaville tonight, why is the pilot here, what happened?
ohhhh juste des petit soucis...
so, as it turns out, upon arrival at the airport, they paid their respects to the airport chief, or whatever it is called, who scrutinized the photo/video permit, which i should add was officially solicited months earlier from the DRC government to the tune of 400$. "apparently" we failed to "activate" said permit, kindof like i didn't activate wi-fi on my phone and ran up my roaming bill? this comes at a cost..200$. 
i ask Omba, why 200$? 
"well it is 160$ but they did not have change." 
This is where i shake my head, papi would have never let this happen. 
but at least you have a receipt? 
the receipt is for 160$. 
someone is eating that 40$ and it's not me.
anyway, the airport chief guy then waved towards the runway, giving his green light. a cessna sits near a hangar
edouard and his much lighter wallet go enthusiastically onto the runway and started taking pictures - not of the plane just yet, just the scenery, when he was immediately siezed by police, miliary. because that cessna is not our cessna, that is the president's cessna! your cessna has not landed yet, it is up there in the sky!
but edouard shows the photos, he was first taking the runway, the scene, he happens to have a piece of the propellor of the president's plane.
that's too much. drats. 
edouard deletes the photos. it's not enough. 
the airport chief arrives, in a huff, and says, this is your problem you will have to pay a fee.
100$....80$....ok 50$ , smallest bill he has and they have no small change - did papi teach you nothing??
this time no receipt.  

there she is!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

i'm a pretty good kinshasa tour guide

when the conservation thing doesn't work out, i am going to start a tour guide business in kinshasa (if  just only i had darker skin....).
so for this trip i am brought some help down to kinshasa to do some press for our project (stay tuned for killer photos and video, and maybe even a guest blogger). and though my donor is accusing me of nepotism, i selected some good friends for this task. i don't care what the donor rules are, i am not going into potentially hairy situations with people i don't know or trust, and i am not a babysitter. besides, my friends will do this for half the price, and they'll let me put them in said hairy situaitons and probably smile about it. AND, everyone loves them and wants to invite them back.
so eric and edouard arrived a few days after me (and broke every airport rule i gave them), and i set them up with 2 cheap bedrooms in some apartment i found. it turns out to be a UN flophouse/frathouse on the 26th floor penthouse of the building with the giant samsung billboard on it. the view is insane. the elevator is crazier. you go up with blue helmet UN guys, or ladies with big bowls on their heads full of fruit, selling door to door. some of the floors are totally run down and abandoned. the elevator doesn't go all the way up so the last few floors you have to hoof it but then, you feel this breeze: from brazzaville to the airport, from gombe to kitambo, the entire upper layer of kinshasa is yours and yours alone. it's a total man-house with cable tv and cold beer kinda thing and my guys couldn't be happier. but what's better? papi the taximan lives downstairs! it's probably one of the most absolute shadiest corners of town but papi can drive right into the garage: perfect! 
view from above

the first week has been the accustomization phase, where i bring eric and edouard simoultaneously to the most fanciest, and the most crappiest places in kin. so they get their bearings. i think it's working. we had 40$ scrimps one night, followed by eating goat bits in the dark with toothpicks, sitting in broken plastic chairs the next. where are the bathrooms? uhhhhhh everywhere (i don't drink liquids so i don't have to go) eric, who is an exact replica of disco stu asks "is this my introduction to bushmeat?" 
ever since he has been rather pale and complaining of stomach cramps. he falls asleep a lot too. we met the head of the parks department, he says to a wincing eric, on whom you can see the waves of stomach pains rippling in his smile "first order of business, is never come to my office in flip flops." and so we left and went to look for a pharmacy. 

on friday night i brought them to the hottest new club in town: the kwilu bar. every other place is now empty, pretty much every UN car in the fleet is parked outside kwilu. this is the place to be. you can actually sit outside on couches and listen to music that goes beyond crappy congolese disco - you can hear the macarena and jay z hip hop too. all my colleagues were calling me "where should we go tonight carbon girl?" and so here we all were. sadly, we shared a table with some gentlemen from an oil company who were all jazzed about digging for oil in virungas national park - that was not a fun discussion, and around 1 am and too many cocktails later (kwilu is awful congolese rhum) my eyelids were getting droopy and i was thinking about my bed. edouard says, look, there's papi! great, my taxi is here, time to go. i bid my farewells and go over to papi when i realize, oh, he is not here to take me home he is here to party! so, party with the taxi driver, let's do shots and then you can drive me home. this is kinshasa! 

Monday, September 23, 2013

fabrics, fabrics

so as of yet, i have not found a single, relaxed, normal way to buy african fabrics. ok, unless i want to go to vlisco where they are 80$ each but that doesn't count.
the whole reason i am in congo is to fly with this little plane we are bringing in from south africa, but it has nothing but problems like crashing in malawi or needing a new o-ring in namibia so, i'm basically waiting for it to show up. which means i have some down time to visit the fabric store.
i asked and asked and asked around for the mother of all fabric stores and was told avenue du commerce, which is really long, and really insane.
so i call papi and ask him if we can just swing by to buy fabrics before lunchtime.
i can already tell that papi is not too jazzed about the idea but as usual he's very accommodating, no problem no problem. we get to the market neighborhood and slowly creep through streets just filled to the gills with buses, people, animals, potholes, dirt, everything. this is it.
i see the store and right in front there are, as usual, all these guys helping you to park, eager to get their commission. so we pick a spot and the guy is like, here here here and he just tosses aside some poor lady's mango stand and waves us in to his special parking spot. 
we get out and i'm in this crazy fabric store, with the loudest music (as usual, so loud you can barely even hear or understand it because it is blowing the speakers) and this guy with a microphone is screaming "super quality! best price!" and some stuff in lingala. it's chaos. there's a bargain corner, with all the fabric pieces on the floor and all the mamans are fighting over the bits and one of the store employees is up on a box, his head and body all wrapped up in fabric and dancing very suggestively. 
the employees are helpful, even though they have this sortof half shut eyelid please kill me now attitude. it's extremely hot. 
i find what i want and papi comes running in, aurelgrooves! aurelgrooves! i need some small bills! the police! and i see his car has a recently installed (man they are quick!) boot (they have boots here?) on the front wheel. this is not good. there are three angry police officers with weapons sitting on the hood. this is so not good. but papi, he is laughing, oh it's just a little negotiation, but it is implied that i must stay in the store - the police cannot, under any circumstances see me or the whole game changes. 10x the bribe, or they might even arrest me - they always find a reason. also, i can't just walk away, this is not at all a safe place to be wandering.  
so i just hang out in the store. the owners are all, what are you doing here? leave! and i say! i can't! so i just start dancing with the employees up on the box with my bag of fabric until papi has finished his business some 20 minuntes later. then, he peels out onto the sidewalk, let's go! go go go! and i hug all my new friends goodbye and jump into the front seat, just as the policemen are slowly counting their loot (papi is so smart, small bills are always best for bribes) and they realize they could have gotten much more than 10$ from this mondele, but we are too quick! thanks for the parking, seeya suckers! and wait until you see my new dresses...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

end of the month in kinshasa

so this was the first time i have been to the airport to pick someone up. being on the other side. so thankfully, i was with papi, who suped up his mercedes or something because he drives crazy fast and it only took us 20 minutes to get to the airport. ask anyone, they will tell you it takes an hour.
papi has a military police buddy or something because he makes a call when we're close and then they just wave us in, as opposed to price gouge us for parking (the hourly rate is whatever you can negotiate, sometimes the passenger and the driver negotiate different prices with different dudes and then you have problems..). once in the parking lot we huddle and figure out our strategy. we need to find the best guy we can bribe to get in, or close to the door. papi's buddy only runs the entrance, he has no authority over the little waiting zone. we have a number of suitable candidates eager to do their duty. papi wants to pick the guy with the highest rank, but i can barely see their little badge stripes, i think the guy with the biggest gun is the way to go. we agree on the most angrily tilted beret guy and start walking. 
it's like a kung fu movie where different waves of people come at you and you need to fend them off with smiles, bribes, illogical debate. like the one guy who said "you can't cross this (invisible) line" without paying 2,000 francs per person.
me: why?
"because if we let everyone close to the airport who wanted to be close to the airport, there would be disorder."
me: what if i pay you, and THEN go cause disorder, because i am so outraged at this bribe?
he looks like he's doing a calculation in his head.
our beret dude is only so-so at helping, he basically steps in when he occasionally remembers that he'll get paid the most when we finally get to the door.
we get to the door, i pay him...but then he goes away! which makes our whole effort moot!
the next guy comes along to ask me for a "coffee" and as i pull out bill after bill i'm saying, "guy, this is the most expensive coffee ever! i am not a bank machine!"
my favorite is when you give them money, and they refuse to accept it because my 5$ is a pitiful amount. that's when i say ok, your problem and put my money away and they get suuuuuper mad.
step on it papi! and we peeled out into the street leaving a trail of beggars, and i don't think i'm welcome there anymore but i don't care. oh, unless the plane i am bringing in from south africa has to land here. woops.

which reminds me - never come to kinshasa at the end of the month! i have a line of people at my office door asking me for money...but i am broke i tell them!
white people are never poor.
don't go there buddy...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

there are no gifts, sigh

i'm not even 5 minutes here and everyone, even the guys who play checkers and open the gates at the office are asking me what i brought them, what i brought them. i'm not santa claus, people. it's bad enough i had one 20kg checked bag filled solely with pruning shears and test tubes for our field office. 
on the other hand, i have quickly found out that if a merchant gives you a gift after buying something, in the guise of you being a valued customer who will surely return - well it's only because they just ripped you off and feel kinda bad about it.
i bought avocados from the lady with the big bowl of avocados on her head. she bats your hand away if you touch them (the people at my market in berlin do that too) and asks you when you plan on eating it, now, later, tomorrow and selects one appropriately. i was tired from haggling with my taxi driver, so only half-assed bargained (i tend to go off coffee on these trips and stick to tea) so was also kinda hazy. when she was giving me my bag she takes my hand and says "gift for you my dear" and gives me a avocado so ripe it's almost melting in my hands. (it was delicious, btw).
i wasn't so easy on the taxi driver, because most of these guys are assholes. i mean, they just dreeeeam of picking up a white girl to charge 100 times (literally) more than a congolese. as i paid him the outrageous fare he has the nerve to say ok, that's great, i threw in the security for free. security? what security? you put your driver seat all the way back and slept while i shopped in a store whose parking lot is guarded by UN soldiers!! grrrrr. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

you'd think they...

so when you leave kinshasa, you have to pay this 50$ fee at the airport, called the go-pass. it's mandatory. so, as i was sitting there today on the runway in front of my plane, indian style on the warm asphalt, leaning against my backpack, only 50m away from this decrepit building with its flickering lights, i started to think. if there are let's say, on average 6 planes leaving a day, and each of them has, ok 200 people in it? on average? then that's at least 60,000 USD a day revenue. For an airport with basically one gate, ok, wait, no gates, just a building, really, that's kindof a lot, dontcha think? enough to buy toilet paper? or more than 4 plastic chairs at the bar? how about one, maybe two of those buses, like they have in other cities that transport you from the plane to the terminal? that would be great. because even though our plane is practically touching the airport terminal you need to be transported allllll the way around the back of it and basicallly in a figure 8 to end up right where you started, but closer to the door.  besides the one actual airport bus which is parked on cinder blocks over there, they have limited transport options. there is one small school bus, which is a total death trap, you can either fall through the gaping hole in the floor, or out of any of the doors that open whenever it careens. because it careens. it's like a last lap nascar dash and there is nothing to hold on to but some congolese lady's hair extensions when that thing gets going. 
so now they have evolved a series of mini-vans, like from off the street or something. sooo you walk down from the plane and there's a line of minivans waiting for you. and yes it's just like in the street, you push your way into one until they are filled to 5 times the standard capacity, though here, people are all fancy and they go and put their luggage in the trunk, like we're going on a road trip? and so i'm just letting you picture what this whole scene looks like for the 250-or so people who have just exited this plane and how many minivan trips this requires. and once inside the van people are all, wow, (whistling and tongue clicking) this is pretty nice, what an improvement! a mercedes! as they tenderly rub the upholstery. let it just be said that congolese will always let needless luxury blind mindless inefficiency.

once i exited the airport there was a giant party, flags, singing, madness, uggggghhhh. the president's wife was on the plane and they were welcoming her. that's really great and all but having to barge through 200 people to get to your car, and then having to wait in that car for another hour before making it to the exit just wasn't my idea of funtime. 
finally on the road (there's a new paved road which is made by the japanese, which is 100 times better than the chinese road, btw) we were in the usual stop and go traffic. in front, a huge 18 wheeler, which about half of its wheels missing, and a bunch of dudes sitting on top of piles of stuff. every time the traffic slowed to a stop, a guy would jump out and put a small log behind the wheel to keep the truck from moving backwards. i don't need to tell you that the log was quite round and large couldn't logically by my geometry prevent any dangerous incidents. when the truck would start moving the guy would toss up the log to his friends and run and jump on. as this happened over and over again i ask my driver if he wouldn't mind changing lanes, and he's like, what are you so worried about? that's not the only log you know, they put one under every row of tires, and even in front, duh.