Wednesday, March 8, 2017

the mamiwata part I

so alicia wanted to celebrate her 37th birthday by spending the weekend outside of Brazzaville, in the Lesio-Louna reserve, a few hours drive away. but planning something in Congo isn't so easy, we had to repeatedly go to the park office at lunch time to sort out the logistics, rather difficult for an organization which has literally no comprehension of tourism. so each day it became this african monty python skit with conversations like
"we want to camp on saturday, and do a boat trip on sunday"
you want to do a boat trip on saturday and sunday? that's a lot of boat trips
"no, only sunday."
the boat operator does not work on saturday
"i know, that is why we want to do a boat trip on sunday"
but if you do the boat trip on saturday, you will be too tired for the boat trip on sunday

Alicia actually asked the guy at one point "have you been drinking today, sir?"
so we would give up and come back the next day and hope someone else would entertain our queries. 
the most difficult obstacle to our quest, was the ever evolving legend that last month an american tourist had recently died in the reserve, therefore overnight stays were not allowed, hikes forbidden, though the story kept changing and we never knew what was happening. 
we found out that it was a french tourist. and that he did not die, he just got lost. or that he was up to no good and actually purposefully disappeared.
and then once, our man left the room momentarily, and his assistant sitting across the room whispered to us "the french tourist was taken by the mamiwata (the sirens of the forest)" cue scary music! 
that day we are driving back from work when we get stopped by the police for the second time in two days because of the tinted windows. everyone has tinted windows! but as of today they are illegal. and they always say "go home and remove the tint, it's easy, it just peels rightoff!"
so alicia calls her mechanic to come, and he meets us at her apartment, he will take care of everything to get the car in order for our trip. and well, we go upstairs to drink wine on the terrace. an hour later we come down and the mechanic is sitting on the curb, pointing to his wrist like, hello, i'm done here, let's go!
he tells us how he fixed the battery and the car is running great
but i say, wait, papa, the tinted windows! you haven't touched them
oh yeah that...
to which i repeat my new favorite congo phrase "you had one job!"
and guess what, only the plastic outer part peels right off, the black tint stays, and you need to scrape it off with a razor blade and then dissolve it with paint thinner.  awesome. that's how we spent the next two hours. and alicia is a total neat freak ocd so it literally felt like we were cleaning up a murder scene with toothbrushes and white rags (which are actually her old panties, which go over real well with the guys).  
saturday morning we packed our things, and we soon notice that somehow the electrics of the car are all backwards - the windows go down when you click them to go up, and all the inside lights go ON when you close the door. you had one job! 
we sigh if off and go pick up two colleagues to complete our group and drive search of fuel. gas shortage! the rebels have apparently blown up the train bridge fuel supply route to pointe noire, long lines and fights at all the petrol stations, what to do?
we call the reliable mechanic who instructs us to drive down some sketchy shanty town route where we buy diesel out of yellow vegetable oil jerry cans. we get an extra just in case, which john attaches to the back bumper with a bungee cord and his belt. 
and finally, many hours late we are off, following the hand drawn map on the inside of a cereal box. like i said, they have no clue how to deal with tourists. bumpy bumpy potholed roads which you actually pay tolls for, get extorted by the police, stop and buy avocados and charcoal, avoid chickens and dogs, and all the way whenever we would say we are going to lesio-louna, this mysterious legend of the dead/lost/undead french tourist and his mamiwata would grow in intrigue. we magically find the unmarked overgrown dirt path which after many wrong turns leads to the reserve, and arrive at the little entrance booth and the guy is all excited "we've been waiting for you for hours! we thought you got lost" to which we explain, you might want to maybe, i don't know, put signs somewhere so we don't drive all over? 
he doesn't care, he tells us where we will spend the night, 12 km away, but that the beautiful lac bleu, is only 6km away, so we should really go there first and swim. he gives us a heap of manioc to feed the rangers at the base camp, another warning about the mamiwata sirens! and we head towards the lake. 

lac bleu from above
Lac bleu is a stunning, clear, deep lake which is a rarity in a land of dark brown or black rivers. the water is crystal, calm, serene, surrounded by tropical trees sheltering us from the increasing winds, the falling ashes from the neary bush fires.  we are entirely alone, accompanied by a few welcome beers and the echoes of our voices from the hills. we attempt to film this magical location with a drone but my colleague had studidly forgotten an essential part! gah!
jump right in
as the day turns to dusk we sadly change out of our bathing suits and resume the vehicle to trek towards the base camp. we stop several times along the way to spot birds, take photos, and take in this amazing landscape. further down we pass a vehicle, racing towards us, flashing its lights and blaring its horn. the guy from the entrance booth runs to us, out of breath 
"we have been looking all over for you!"
apparently not everywhere, we were at the lake
"we were expecting you at the base camp and when you didn't show up we thought you were taken by the mamiwata"
but you told us to go to the lake!
they drive away, a bit frustrated and we laugh it off. night is falling quickly and the road splits in two very different directions, no idea which to take. 
"wouldn't it be funny if now they stopped looking for us and we actually did get lost" i say? my companions are unimpressed.    
we drive and drive and drive and take turns here and there and we cannot find this base camp.
it's now dark, and harry, the australian bird fanatic shows off his mega-bright flashlight. 1100 lumens, which i guess is brighter than the projector at the cinema. he starts pointing the light into the woods, part of a sport he calls "owling" and counts all the different glowing eyeballs. which i just find super creepy.
finally we stop in an open savanna and get out to determine what to do. we are near some abandoned house and consider if we should just sleep in the car or what. shortly, two guys come running over "we found you!" it's two park rangers. who explain that they were waiting for us, and then saw this really bright light appear in the distance, and that's how they tracked us down. thank goodness for those 1100 lumens! 
they bring us back to basecamp, which is a delightful collection of bungalows with these screened in thatched roofed common rooms. we start up the grill, open the wine and it's saturday night. 
at one point john says "i know those ranger guys smoke weed, we should ask for some." so he goes off and comes back and explains how he used hand motions and subtle hints to asked the guys for smoked stuff, and they were were all sure no problem we bring you some maboke tomorrow. 
we ruin his fun by explaining that maboke is actually smoked fish, haha. but he says whatever, they are drinking this rocket fuel and you need to try it. so we go over and join their little party and drink this home made corn alcohol from a pastis bottle which could certainly light up something. so we drink and talk, and then i ask one of them, hey what's the deal with the french tourist, are we going to get the real scoop?
the two guys look at each other and tell me "we were there, madame" and so just like in a movie with flashbacks, we each take a bottle cap full of jet fuel and they begin their enrapturing story telling. it was like all they needed was a flashlight under their chin to make it complete. though their story telling style was also interactive, the guy would say a phrase like, there was a tourist named jean-marc" and he would wait for me to ask a question or say "and then what happened?" and so we finally heard the story of: the french tourist and the mamiwata. (TBC)

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