Posts Tagged ‘transportation’

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.

The Helicopter ride

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Sometimes, being the only foreigner around and thus drawing a certain amount of otherwise undeserved attention, has its perks.

Col. Madan and me

Col. Madan and me

When Bina and I finally got ourselves down to the airport runway for our flight out of Talcha, it was to be a helicopter ride. That we were getting out and not spending another day wondering about our fate was the best part. But equally exciting was that this would be a chopper – always more fun than some regular old airplane. And, as it turns out, I was in for a real treat.

After landing and unloading his cargo of World Food Program-donated rice, the helicopter pilot himself got out for a quick stretch of the legs and a salute to the policemen monitoring our departure. One of them pointed in my direction and the pilot, Col. Madan K.C., then approached me jovially wishing me “Welcome! Hello!” I greeted him in return and we had a warm exchange. In the space of only a few minutes he told me he’d been the pilot in 1996 to rescue a Texas doctor from atop Everest and was featured in the Imax movie about that same disastrous climbing season (he saved two people actually, Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau, in one of the world’s highest ever helicopter rescues). Then he invited me to join him in the cockpit after take-off to see “what it’s really like to fly a helicopter.” I, of course, accepted, but wasn’t sure if he was serious.

Soon thereafter we boarded and Bina and I settled into our bench seats at the rear, hugging in relief that we were actually on the move. Only moments later, one of the crew called us up front and after lifting off from the gravel ground, I was summoned into the cockpit onto a small Nepali stool made of straw. Settled snuggly between Col. Madan, a former Nepali Army pilot with 35 years experience, and his co-pilot, who actually did all of the flying, I started in on a half-hour long rhapsody of oohing and aahing at the views. What an incredible sight! The front of the helicopter is all windshield, rounded from the aircraft’s floor to its roof, offering a sweeping sight. Mountains rolled by one after the other in a continuous relief of distant and hazy blues and, as we descended, farmland greens. Nepal from the air is spectacular.

To top it all off, Col. Madan told me a bit about his adventures – landing a helicopter at 23,000 feet on Everest with space enough for only one side of his aircraft’s landing gear. The other half of the copter swayed perilously in the thin air. And on one of his take offs during that rescue, he was forced into a precipitous drop off of the mountainside before being able to regain elevation. Seeing that he could handle all of this, I knew I was in good hands, and clicked away with my camera.

When we landed Col. Madan and I exchanged phone numbers and emails. He told me he’d soon be in New York. I suggested we get coffee. I hope we do. I have a strong feeling he has many more stories to tell…

Is it my Karma?

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

So the stomach bug is not so unusual. But the series of canceled flights on this journey are starting to stack up in suspect ways…

I was supposed to be in Juphal, the Dolpo region, to watch the three sisters’ mobile tourism training for three days – until Nov. 3. Our plane was scheduled for 8 am but Bina only came to find me to head to the airfield (this was is also just a bare gravel strip in the midst of looming mountains) at about 9:30 am. Once there, we waited for about an hour. Initially the plane was to come in the (increasingly typical) 10-20 minutes. But 20 minutes later, the flight was canceled. We’d have to try tomorrow, Bina told me. We’d be on the first flight, 6 am.

Then my bug attacked. So, we aimed instead for the 8 am flight again. And actually got on, though this time at about 9:45am. But we made it, without incident to Surkhot. There we waited an additional two-and-a-half hours for our flight to Jumla. I didn’t mind much as I slept for a lot of that. The only troublesome bit was the waiting room after we went through security. The entirely too distinct smell of urine seeped from the nearby toilets. Soon enough, the police let most of us in the room sit outside until we boarded …

Once in Jumla my only mode of transport was my feet, until the end of my hike. After five days of walking, Bina, Fhulmaya and I reached Talcha, where another airstrip provided transit from the region. Having left Rara lake early in the morning – 6:45 am among an intense morning frost – we got to Talcha by about 9:15. Our flight was supposed to be at noon to Surkhot from where we would board a local bus to Pokhara. So we found a sunny place to sit, Bina and Fhulmaya tracked down some elusive biscuits and we ate a little snack. Fhulmaya started her walk back to Jumla at about 11:30 am.

The Nepal airways flight scheduled before us came and went at about noon. Ours was next in, yes, 10-20 minutes. Thirty minutes later, yes, it would come, in about 10 minutes. Then the police whistle sounded and a woman in uniform cried, “Strike!”

Within several short minutes of her call, a band or about 30 or so rowdy adolescent boys began marching up the airfield.

The strikers in action on the airfield

The strikers in action on the airfield

Bina translated that they were demanding that rice prices be lowered and that they be better allowed to travel from the area. I never quite understood what this latter complaint involved, whether or not they were legally barred from getting airplane tickets for some reason or the tickets were too expensive or what. The rice price issue, I gleaned, was legitimate, with prices having recently skyrocketed, Bina said. Yet the details remain murky here too because before and after the boys’ protest, I had watched at least three helicopters land and unload dozens of rice bags with big block letters saying “donated by the World Food Program.” These were added to the two-to-three already heaping piles of such bags sitting on the edge of the runway. So, I’m still hazy on the exact circumstances of the rice problem…

Anyway, what it meant for me was, after four-five hours of waiting, there was no flight. We were stuck in Talcha, not an especially appealing place to be. And we didn’t know for how long. Maybe we’d get out the next day? Maybe a flight would still come that day? Maybe we’d be stuck for five days? There was no road for vehicle travel to walk to and Fhulmaya had long ago left us, meaning the option of walking back to Jumla was out, it being doubtful that Bina and I could have easily found our way. Plus, I didn’t really want to do the reverse walk…

And, apparently, the Nepali police – who have a base in town and whose presence was ample enough – could not find a way to simultaneously allow a plane to safely land and let the boys peacefully protest away from the airfield. This confused me greatly.

I also realized that, despite all the international travel I have done, I hate not being in control (for those who know me well, feel free to sigh, smile and shake your head knowingly, laughing at what is soooooo obvious…). I hated not being able to get the police to just sort everything out. I hated that I could not call a customer service representative to get me on another flight. I hated that there was no other airport to try. I hated being stuck, immobile, impotent, having to wait. I can be very impatient.

So I hemmed and hawed and moaned and groaned and Bina let me vent, nodding gently and agreeing that it was all pretty awful. We found a room in the one hotel in town and Bina went to try and find more information. This entailed her listening in alongside several villagers as the police, airline representatives and boys had “discussions” and reporting back to me at various intervals that they were “discussing” and that the boys were making “demands.” Nothing changed. So I read, we ate our dal bhat for dinner, and we slept hoping some resolution would come the next day.

In the morning, Bina and I trotted over to the airport tower – a tiny, two-story wooden thing that looked more like a tree house than a control station. Inside we tried to find out if a plane would come. The man in charge really couldn’t say. Maybe? Then yes, Nepal Airlines would come. Then, no, they wouldn’t. Then maybe Yeti Airlines (our carrier) would come, then, no for sure and for an indefinite period, they would not come. Then maybe a helicopter would come and maybe we could get on it. But he didn’t know and wouldn’t know for several hours. A UN flight would come, but we could definitely not get on that.


I went outside to work on a story.

After about an hour Bina came running over – a helicopter was coming in! We have to go!

So I huffed my way breathlessly up the hill to our hotel, grabbed my pack, hastily paid my bill, and marched as swiftly as possibly across the village to the airfield. There a man was collecting money for the flight, but for some reason there was intense confusion about what I was to pay and whether in US Dollars or Nepali Rupees. Fearing I would miss the flight, I did kind of lose it then. No one could tell me what was going on and the conversations flying around me, at least three at once, all in rapid Nepali, with no one explaining anything to me, just overwhelmed me. And that’s when my hemming and hawing became a little too loud… But as usual, Bina dealt with me and got me onto the helicopter safely and graciously accepted my apologies for losing my cool. Big sigh.

So we made it out. But that’s not the end of the story. The helicopter ride turned into a real treat and a much-needed boon during what would continue to be a long, long, long journey home…

More on that in the next post.

China in the Congo

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

A quick note about China…

Or something like that. One of the funny quirks of being in Bukavu this past week has been the frequency with which the subject of the shoddy nature of Chinese products in the Congo comes up: every day. And I’m not just talking about plastics – but roads, especially, water heaters and just about anything else you can imagine.

So the roads in particular are interesting in Bukavu. Primarily, they are terrible. Apparently, some 50-60 years ago, these Belgian-made roads were in near perfect condition. Smooth, fast, secure. Today it’s hard to imagine that they were ever in such shape. They are easily the bumpiest, most rutted out and ruined roads I’ve been on. The few times I didn’t ride in a jeep were less than comforting.

According to my translator and others, in recent years the Chinese have been coming in and re-building these roads. But the reviews are not generally favorable. Most people seem to think the Chinese roads won’t last two years. And the issue comes up a lot. On Saturday night as I was out reporting, each time a car or truck zoomed past and kicked up dust, my translator muttered, sighed and shook his head, “China!”

The water at my guesthouse was also a continual topic of conversation, mostly because it worked infrequently and was almost never hot. I was one of the lucky ones that did get hot water when it worked. One of the other guests told me that the management had recently bought a water heater from China but it broke after two weeks. None of the Congolese who heard the story were surprised.

As has oft been reported the Chinese are making serious business inroads into Africa. What I’ve not heard as much was how Africans feel about it. At least in Bukavu, the ones I met are not impressed so far. But the whole thing is good for a laugh or two…!

So much more to say about the Congo, so will try to get to all that soon.

Here we go!

Monday, October 5th, 2009

Cheers! Or something… This is my first post since launching this blog and I definitely feel like I’m reaching into the unknown. But who’s not up for an adventure? I am hoping this will be a place to ruminate and reflect on my work, my travels, the people I meet and the stories all around me. There’s almost never enough room in my articles to include every great quote, or anecdote or funny and interesting detail, so you just might see some of those here. To top it off, and if I’m really lucky, maybe all this extra writing and thinking will lead to insights I wouldn’t have had otherwise… Or maybe just hearing from you all (anonymous readers out there), will be the key. Here’s to finding out soon enough!

So, to get things started, a bit of good news about the upcoming Congo trip: I think we may have solved our transportation dilemma. That is, I think we may just have a way now to get from Bujumbura, Burundi to Bukavu, in the Eastern DRC. In a big car. On good roads. And without breaking the bank. Funny, in this one instance — arranging for this ride — I really haven’t minded the slog of emails, phone calls and all my broken French that it’s taken to procure a ride. (Though I think much is coming back, I am reminded that it’s been a long time since AP French in high school.. Thus, I was sure I had found us the best deal around, $200 one way, but didn’t quite catch the key details that such a ride was on a bus… Good thing for Alice, my Burundian fixer extraordinaire). It’s been fun and interesting connecting with people in places far away and finding them so willing to help. It’s making the trip feel real and adventurous. I’m eager to get going, though my to-do list continues to grow…

More later!