Posts Tagged ‘roads’

Driving to Goma

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

10.Oct.2010

A new route, this time, from Kigali to Goma, the northern route. Alphonse is ferrying me there again, cheerful as always, and tells me he likes this way best because the scenery is more striking. Initially that’s hard to imagine because the road to Bukavu is a winding, hilly one that is complete the entire way with striking countryside. But it turns out that driving to Goma takes you past Musenze, a tourist hub at the Rwanda base of Virunga National park and home to six (I think) volcanoes. This is where the mountain gorillas on the Rwanda side reside. It is also where, according to Alphonse, one of the hotels deep in the jungle charges $1000 per night for the privilege of volcano and lake views.

We drove on a Sunday, kind of a grey day, but pleasant. The roadsides where fairly busy with church-goers: women in silky finery and radiant parasols. These are the large umbrellas that seems to be unique to the area, vibrant colors, intricate designs – especially of flowers – used not only to protect from the rain, but in Victorian fashion to shield the women and the babies on their backs from the sun. I’d love to find one and bring it home. This trip, with the venture to Lake Tanganyika is probably not the one…

It felt like a quick ride and Alphonse dropped me at the border. We bade goodbye and I walked to the immigration counter. Roger found me there and we proceeded to the hotel, Cap Kivu again, same room too! The receptionist remembered me! Cute little spot with a slanted ceiling and balcony overlooking the beautiful gardens and lake. I read and slept and tried to regulate my body from the jet lag. Roger and Dobs and I had a nice dinner at Ihusi hotel and then it was off to bed for a day of planning my coverage on Monday. Uneventful. Good.

Oh Congo

Friday, March 19th, 2010

So I’ve just settled in for a little break in what was a long, good, but tiring day. Started at 8:30 a.m. with a hotel change — thankfully — from a rather moldy, not super clean, no fruit at breakfast spot, to probably the nicest hotel in town. I’m glad to be here, looking out of my window on to gorgeous, well-manicured gardens with Lake Kivu just beyond. It was raining for a bit and the short but steady downpour, and the cool wind that accompanied it, was a nice backdrop for some relaxation. I’ve still got one interview to go tonight, but I am taking this time to chill out in advance.

The most exciting thing today was a US movie star celeb! I walked out of an interview at Panzi Hospital to find a large group of foreigners standing in front of what is most often used as the hospital’s cafeteria for patients. It was full of women, listening attentively to a handsome gentleman standing up front with Dr. Mukwege. Who, you ask, was this man? Well, none other than Ben Affleck. Yup. His PR lady rather curtly told me that they were doing no press and wouldn’t tell me why they were there. But there was a man filming the whole thing and Mr. Affleck had quite and entourage. All I can gather so far is he was here to see the hospital, find out what they’re doing etc. I think he’s been here before. He looks, by the way, just as he does on screen, only he’s very tall. I had no idea.

It was also lovely to see Dr. Mukwege again. He greeted me very warmly. I learned he has just returned from a trip to the US and in May is off to give a speech to the European Parliament, I think. Busy man. Rolling between movie stars, politicians and some of Congo’s neediest women all without skipping a beat.

Other than that, I’ve been trying to wrap my head a bit around this trip. I leave on Tuesday and, typically, the last few days are a mad dash. However I want to record some of the lighter things that stand out for me here. I’ll start a list:

-Among the most popular songs is surely Celine Dion’s theme song from Titanic. I hear it everywhere.
-The Pakistani MONUC troops love to take pictures of Mizungus (foreigners in Kiswahili, or perhaps less politely, white people).
-Bananas are delicious. Three cost 200 Congolese francs.
-Fabric shopping in Kadutu Market is a dizzying experience with almost too many options from which to choose!
-Best response to a adolescent or young adult male teasingly calling to me, the mizungu, is to shout back muosi! (African / Congolese in Kiswahili). I get a good, surprised laugh in return.
-Wear your seatbelt!
-Goma is HOT!
-Bukavu has a much more manageable temp.
-The gorillas are totally worth it. So is the bushwhacking.
-Remember, most babies here don’t wear diapers…. (important information when holding them)
-But they are ADORable — so beware! Holding them is very hard to resist!
-Hot water is a super luxury
-The slow boat on Lake Kivu is the way to go. Fast boat is small, way cramped and bumpy!
-The police here march in formation. A lot.
-If there is street work that closes the street, no one will tell you and no one will put up a sign. Hope you have a creative driver!
-The greetings I’ve gotten from groups of women here are some of the most welcoming of anywhere I’ve been. Trilling a chorus of high-pitched, tongue behind the front teeth, “la la las” that usually culminate in clapping, singing, dancing and lots of eager hand-shaking. I love it. It has made me blush, but it is so genuine and lovely and welcoming, it really moves me when it happens.

Gorillas!

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Holy, holy mountain gorillas! Saw them today on my trek into the depths of the bush in Virunga National Park. It was incredible.

A backside view of the 200 kilo Silverback and Papa to the 12-member gorilla family I saw

A backside view of the 200 kilo Silverback and Papa to the 12-member gorilla family I saw

Which of these tasty morsels shall I chomp on next?

Which of these tasty morsels shall I chomp on next?

The family baby -- loving his chance to play and stuff his grill!

The family baby -- loving his chance to play and stuff his grill!

The adventure began on the road into the park. It’s a mostly uphill, deeply rutted route marked with huge jagged lava rock that look made to pop tires, stall cars and dent anything and everything underneath our seats… It was a bumpy and slow ride, at times even mildly harrowing. But despite a couple stalls and spinning wheels and take twos and threes, we made it. We actually walked the last 100 meters to the trail head while the car drivers tried to navigate a particularly treacherous mud / rut / rock combination. In our absence, and with several sets of young hands from the local village youth, they eventually made it to the ranger station where we started and ended our gorilla adventure.

The head ranger, a welcoming man named Michel whose been a ranger here for 20 years, told us that between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda — the park crosses into each country at points — there are about 700 mountain gorillas left. In the area where we walked, called Mikono, there are 6 families totaling about 43 gorillas.

We walked about an hour and a half through the densest forest I think I’ve ever been in — there was no trail because we were following the gorilla’s paths, actually tracking them. So the rangers had to use their machetes to carve our way through. As we ducked under and climbed over roots, pushed vines to the side and untangled them from our feet, we eventually got to an enclave of 10 gorilla nests. They were infested with flies and adorned with fresh logs of gorilla poop. The rangers need to check the nests and the poop in particular to make sure the animals remain healthy. Blood in stool = no good. No blood = good.

These indicators also signal the way. Michel said after they nest the gorillas don’t move that far away. He then predicted another 30 minutes of walking. And in 31 minutes we saw them! A family of twelve, including the father, a 200 kilo Silverback (massive fingers and toes, hunk of a head), and an utterly adorable little baby gorilla. It was such fun and so unlike anything I’ve gotten to do here yet. The gorillas were super chill and even seemed to be posing for us at times. At one point the baby started walking straight at one of the guys in our group (we were four — me, roger, and a Canadian couple), as if to grab him. But the mamma gorilla pulled the baby back, reeling in mischief. So human! Michel said the baby was shocked by our light skin and would have wanted to touch us and see if it would wipe off! I don’t think they see that many tourists these days.

This is, in fact, considered the low season. Only about 25 people have gone to see the gorillas this month. Back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, there were upwards of 3,000 visitors each year. Now the number is about 250-300. The park closed in 2005 because of violence and only reopened in the southern section (where we were) in May of 2009. That was when the Congoloese army was able to clear the FDLR (former Interahamwe from Rwanda) from the area. These days things are calm again and our rangers were more worried about running into a possibly angry elephant than anything else!

Being in the forest was great. It was hot and muggy and pretty difficult to walk because of all the vines and branches, and not really being able to see the ground much because of said vines and branches, which not only made standing upright at times a challenge, but cover the forest floor. Yet it added so much to the experience to follow the actual path the gorilla’s take and find them that way. Needless to say, they move much more easily through the jungle than I. However, I am now able to officially claim I’ve bush-whacked!

I saw a bit of rural Congo on our drive, as well. As I expected the poverty was intense. The homes had mostly thatched roofed and bamboo walls with mud or leaves in between, and the children ran about in tattered t-shirts and dresses. When they saw us they got very excited and immediately asked for cookies! I should have known and brought some — though it might have required a trunk-full to satisfy each child! Note to self…

Tomorrow I’m back to reporting. But those gorillas will not been soon forgotten.

For more info visit the Virunga National Park Web site.

The head ranger and I pose in front of the gorilla family, our masks firmly in place to keep our diseases from infecting the precious animals

The head ranger and I pose in front of the gorilla family, our masks firmly in place to keep our diseases from infecting the precious animals

International Women’s Day

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

So I’ve not been a very good blogger of late… apologies for not recording these events sooner.

Monday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. Though it is celebrated around the world, I’ve never participated in or even been aware of any special events in the U.S. I know they exist, but they’re not well publicized or attended it seems. In Congo, it’s quite a different story.

I was in Bukavu on Monday, out early, to cover the annual parade that marks International Women’s Day here. I knew it was going to be a scene, but this was spectacular. There were thousands of women — I don’t know how many and I couldn’t get an official estimate, but by my own guess I’d have to say around 5,000 women at least. And they were dressed to the nines! Each group that marches — local NGOs and women’s associations, UN divisions, international NGOs, etc — dresses in matching clothes. Thus under a bright, hot sun (my shoulders are only now starting not to ache from my neon sun burn), one of Bukavu’s main avenues transformed from an often muddy, jaggedly pot-holed roller-coaster, into a rainbow of the city’s women.

The colors were outstanding! And the patterns, all together like that, a vibrant swirl. The singing and dancing of the women along the route was uplifting and made one think that if all of these women could come together, in force, they could do anything. They could really change this war-torn place…

Even as dark clouds moved in, pushing the sunshine out, and an absolute downpour drenched us all, the women did not stop. Nor did they step out of beat to the music playing as they walked. Nor did their arm swinging fall out of pattern. And they were smiling — well, a lot of them were. I even saw one lady who seemed to have lost a sandal to the raging river the street had become keeping up with the others, utterly unfazed, and happy.

Women in the rain, with pearls, on International Women's Day, Bukavu, eastern DRC

Women in the rain, with pearls, on International Women's Day, Bukavu, eastern DRC


The rain didn't stop, and neither did the women marching on International Women's Day in Bukavu, eastern DRC

The rain didn't stop, and neither did the women marching on International Women's Day in Bukavu, eastern DRC

They kept this up for several hours more, though I bailed after about one hour or so in the rain. I was soaked and cold. I  had tried to take cover under a tarp hung over  a seating area, but I was on the edge. A fine spot while the rain fell straight. But when it started to come in sideways, it was all over. Roger, my ever-steadfast translator, was soaked too. And then Debi, our driver, found us! God knows how he maneuvered the car so close to where we were, but he save the day, whisking us back to dry clothes and warmer bones.

I did try to return to the parade to catch some speeches and see more action, but by then there was no way to get through the traffic back to where we’d been or anywhere near the route’s finish line. With two more interviews to go that afternoon we had to turn around.

The rain only let up late in the afternoon and most marchers had dispersed around the time we did, give or take an our or so. And yet, the day was certainly not a wash (sorry for the terrible pun…). It was wonderful to see so much spirit and enthusiasm among women here — so many of whom have suffered terribly as a result of the country’s ongoing and brutal conflict. It was inspiring to see little girls get into the mood and tell me that the day was their day to call on the government to support girls’ education, to ”say what we think” and to “be valued.”

Even as violence goes on and as women are so often it’s victims, this day displayed their remarkable resilience and courage. It reminded me, as so many things here do, of what I take for granted, of how lucky I am and how little I’ve really ever “endured.” I am grateful for the perspective.

The 15-hour bus ride

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

Oh, did I say 15 hours? Silly me, I meant 21 hours. Local bus. Lots of stops. Not comfortable, imagine that? Here’s a run-down:

Our vessel of ill repute

Our vessel of ill repute

Hour 0: Bina and I arrive in Surkhet (pronounced Sur-ket) and find a bus (really a large minivan) that will take us to Napalgunj where we can transfer to an overnight bus that will get us all the way back to Pokhara – home base for the Three Sisters Adventure Trekking (the company about which I am writing) and for Bina and me. We are told the trip will take 2.5 hours.

Hour .5: first stop (to pee etc)

Hour 1: second stop (to pee etc)

Hour 2: third stop. Yes, to pee, etc, but this time we stop in a town where we can buy some food. Bina procures us some yummy bean curry and spinach as well as several delectably greasy potato samosas and sugary fried treat. We eat in the van.

Hour 3.25: arrive in Napalgunj. But before letting anyone off of the bus, the driver makes a quick swoop to the local hospital for one of the patients whose fallen ill. He is a grown man and has been moaning and swooning for at least an hour now. He looks as though he is barely conscious, really. But when we arrive at the hospital, it’s closed. Yes, you read that correctly. Closed. Bina said there was some kind of strike here too… We did pass at least a dozen police decked out in riot gear, which seemed odd… Anyway, since the place was shut, we turned back around and made a beeline for the bus depot. I have no idea what happened to the man who was ill. He seemed to have some folks looking after him, so I’m hoping they saw to it that he was cared for.

Hour 4: Bina finds us our bus to Pokhara (what I would have done without her on this journey, I have NO idea…). This time, it’s a veritable bus, big and green, slightly hammered on the sides and containing about 10-12 rows of four seats (two per side). I buy a Pepsi.

Hour 4.25: We settle onto the bus. The seats are not comfortable, though I’ve been assured by the nice gentleman at the ticket booth they will be. The foam cushions quickly give way and render the seat as good as a slab of wood. My chair doesn’t go back far at all, the ones in front of us go back so far my knees are pushed up against them and Bina’s seat reclines to such a degree that the person behind her will have little leg room himself. Think positive thoughts. Bus makes a small circle around Napalgunj rounding up more passengers.

Hour 4. 5: Bus heads out of town. I move one row up, hoping to give Bina and I each our own seats, but soon a man sits next to her and then me. Her companion soon falls asleep basically on top of her – slumped sideways practically in her lap. She’s too polite to say anything. I nudge him awake and ask to switch seats with him. He obliges.

Hour 5-11: Driving. Frequent stops. Pee breaks, picking up and dropping off passengers. At one point three men with very smelly bags of fish get on. All the seats are full so they see fit to settle in the aisle right next to me! The smell is intense and I think this will not be OK for the next 10 hours. When I budge one of the bus workers and point from the smelly fish bag to the roof (hoping he’ll understand that I mean, please please please! ask the men to put their belongings up top) he reassures me – “only 10 minutes.” Felt a little bratty and whiny about my reaction, but, look, I’m human.

Hour 11: Dinner stop. Bina’s been sick a couple of times – very discreetly and only out of my sight when we stop. But she’s not doing well on the long ride. We both order ramen noodles for dinner. No dal bhat, please. I find the elusive chocolate biscuits for which the West Nepalis apparently have no taste! Even Bina wants one!

Hour 12: Total darkness outside, bus comes to a rather sudden halt. Soon enough there is clamoring off and then back onto the bus by passengers – mostly men (most of the passengers are men, but the few women seem less inclined to do the on-off shuffle). Bina is able to explain from what she’s hearing that there is an accident ahead. I get out to investigate. The rows of buses extend beyond where I can see – in front of me and behind. Granted, it is pitch black when all the bus lights are turned off. But in the 20 minutes I am outside, several more buses and trucks pull up and park on the side of the road – the other side – I guess, ours is already full.

Three men are outside our bus having a lively conversation in Nepali. To my great good fortune – being nosy, curious and linguistically deficient – one speaks halting English. He tells me the line of buses is 100 deep (I’m skeptical, but there are a lot of buses). He says two buses have collided up ahead. They are blocking the road. There are dead bodies. Police will come in the morning and decide what to do and maybe open the road.

Since I can’t see the collision, I have no idea if the police have arrived or not, or if, in fact, there are dead bodies or any injuries. But I’ve not heard any sirens or seen flashing lights. Given what we’ve already experienced and witnessed with the swift reactions and successful responses of the Nepali police elsewhere, I’m inclined to believe the man, that they are, as yet, no shows here. (Maybe I’m not being generous, and I do apologize if so, but it was late, and I was really tired.)

Hour 12.5: Feeling totally helpless and frustrated, I return to the bus. Bina has asked to switch seats. It’s a good thing, because her broken-and-therefore-too-far-leaning-back seat is quite effective at inducing sleep. I can’t do anything, in fact, but close my eyes.  Until, that is, the man behind me starts to push on the seat trying to get me to move it up. I try to explain it’s broken, nothing I can do. Bina tries to help too. He seems resigned.

Hour 13.5 or 14 (not sure): Man behind the seat puts his head on my seat and settles into sleep that way. He is breathing on me. I (awkwardly – this is so weird!) touch his face in an attempt to signal – not OK, please remove nostrils from the crown of my head.

Man behind the seat then reaches over the seat and, yes, between my knees to try and pry some mechanism on the seat he seems to believe will fix it and bring my seat forward! I swat his hand indignantly, making very clear he and his hand will be coming nowhere near my personal space – broken seat be damned! There is foul language involved. Again, a little embarrassed and hoping, assuming, no one really understood the English, just the message I was trying to convey. I think tone of voice is fairly effective for that. But I mean, his hand went between my knees! Big sigh. This is getting rough.

Hour 14-17: sleeping. Bus totally black. Bus totally not moving anywhere. But the Hindi pop music that has been blaring on the radio during the rest of the ride is off. So, apart from a spate of loud conversation between a mother and her child, which probably lasted 30 minutes or so (they were apparently nonplussed that most of the rest of us were trying to sleep), I did get some rest.

Hour 17: Bus comes to life. It’s now about 5 am. We are told the road has been cleared.

Hour 17-18.5: Bus turns on, turns off, turns on, turns off, turns on, turns off – you get the point – as it creeps through the logjam of traffic created by the collision. Still never saw any police or heard anything, but that really means nothing. My vantage point was limited.

Hour 18.5: Stop to pee, drink tea, morning break.  Bina and I decide definitively, we hate the bus. Hate it. We are told we have two more hours.

Hour 19-21: Fewer stops, and mostly to let passengers off. Though one short stop serves a somewhat mind-boggling purpose: from what I could tell, the bus pulled over only to allow passengers an opportunity to ogle what was apparently an accident off the side of a cliff. What a strange, and intrusive, procession it seemed. Everyone piled off, looked, piled back on and the bus continued.

Hour 21: Arrival in Pokhara. Too tired to even rejoice. Glad I did this, makes for a good story. Next time, I fly.