Posts Tagged ‘travel nightmares’

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.

Congo, round two!

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Well, I’m off again. Leaving tonight for the DRC by way of Brussels and Kigali. I sincerely hope that a) the snowy weather in NYC right now doesn’t screw up the flights tonight. Called BA this morning and was told it was going on time for now. Let’s hope… and b) that there are no more adventures involving Brussels and Frankfurt and Adis Ababa this time!

I should get to Bukavu on Sunday, early afternoon, and will be geared up for three weeks of good reporting and story-hunting. I’ve got a lot to do, but much more time on this second trip, so I’m hoping it won’t be such a mad dash. And maybe, I’ll have a little more time to take in some of this fascinating place and see it a bit more too.

I’ll add posts here as the stories accumulate. So, more anon!

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.

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.

UUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

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.

The who’s who and what’s what in my Nepal

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Here’s some background so you can follow along with the following blog posts about my trip in Nepal if you are so inclined. A tip-sheet, if you will (see bold).

I’ve come to Nepal to report a story about an all-female owned trekking company here for a magazine back in the States. The three sisters who own this company — Lucky, Nicky and Dicky Chhetri – also started a non-profit about 10 years ago to empower Nepali women. As part of their work, they began several years ago extending their reach into the remote west of Nepal, the country’s most impoverished area. My story will focus on their work here, thus I arranged to go on one of the region’s quintessential hikes: from Jumla, a small city, to Rara Lake, the country’s largest, located almost 3,000 meters high. Depending on how fast or slow you go, the walk can take from a few days to more than a week. My Nepali porter/assistant guide, Fhulmaya, can do the walk in just over two days. But she’s 19 and she grew up here. With me in tow, it took four days. I was encouraged, however, when she assured me for a foreigner that I was fast!

Before going, I also went with one of the sisters and several of her organization’s volunteers to another remote Western outpost, a small village called Juphal in the Dolpo region. There the group was giving a basic tourism training to guesthouse and lodge owners, farmers, shop keepers, etc. Their aim is to bring economic development, improved health, and gender equity to the region through environmentally sustainable tourism.

A view from Juphal (note the grazing sheep)

A view from Juphal (note the grazing sheep)

So, I started in Juphal to observe the training there for two days. It’s small village perched on a steep hillside, surrounded by several towering, snowy peaks. The dogs are noisy at night protecting the chickens; cows, goats and donkeys roam freely. The river, about one hour’s walk below us, cut a gracefully curvy path down the valley center.

My constant companion has been Bina, 21, a guide with the trekking company and a gentle and attentive caretaker of me. I would have been utterly lost without her. Not only was she my guide, safely getting me everywhere I needed to be, but she was my translator too. I could not have done a single interview without her. Nor could I have made it through my 24-hour stomach bug, the interminable airport waits and various other travel delays and disasters we encountered without her comforting presence. More on all this later….! It being her first trip to Rara too, we also equally enjoyed the views together – all old hat for Fhulmaya.

There will be more details on the walk and the training and on Bina and Fhulmaya in the magazine piece, so I can’t divulge too much yet! In any case, I hope some of these subsequent posts might offer other interesting highlights.