Adventures in Congo, vol. 1

Happy Friday, family and friends!

Sébastien and I arrived in our new home in Fungurume, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Wednesday afternoon.  Only this morning did I find both internet access and a power adapter at the same time, so I can finally sit down and write an update.

Arriving in Johannesburg on Tuesday after the 15-hour flight from Atlanta was quite a relief.  We stayed in a nice hotel near the airport, had a fabulous dinner at a huge buffet, and got up early the next morning for our 3-hour flight on South African Airways to Lubumbashi.  The flight was packed with mostly businessmen, including a large Chinese contingent and many South Africans and Australians, and I have yet to figure out what brings so many professional people to this place.  The country has no major business going on besides mining, so I guess all these suits are involved in some type of mining negotiation??  Most negotiations involve the government, so I would think they’d be more interested in traveling to Kinshasa, the capital.  I suggested to Seb that maybe these people were transferring planes, and he laughed and said, “There are no transfers here.”  There were also three middle-aged white ladies all dressed up, huge Gucci and Coach purses included, speaking Portuguese and acting like they were heading to a beach vacation.  Hmm.  There were only a couple of plain-looking young ladies traveling alone.  In my imagination they were relief workers, Peace Corps types, the only story that really makes sense.  I wanted to walk up and down the aisles of our plane and ask everyone what their stories were, why the heck were THEY traveling to Lubumbashi.

Arrival at the airport — fascinating.  Rough landing on a rough runway, then the plane taxis in close to the single tiny terminal, where we descend the stairs onto the hot tarmac.  A tall, slender Congolese woman in a long colorful dress and very high heels greets the first passengers and leads them towards the building.  Then mad chaos begins.  Still outside, passports are handed over in stacks to a random dude, where yours becomes one of dozens.  Your bags may or may not be searched, and then you are pushed inside a cramped waiting room.  Passports are magically returned individually ½ hour later.  (I hope everyone checks that they got the right one.)  This process is repeated one plane at a time — not that there’s a huge lineup.  I had heard a rumor that if your vaccination record is not stapled inside your passport, it can easily “disappear” and then you’ll be greeted with a dripping needle of yellow fever vaccine and a $150 bill.  Mine was not stapled, but luckily was returned to me sans shot.  It’s also pretty miraculous that our five checked bags of luggage (which cost $600 in extra baggage fees) were all returned to us intact, as the luggage gets lined up along the tarmac just a few feet away from the outbound luggage on the next flight, and is hand-delivered to each person.  In the midst of all this, the waiting room had nearly workable toilets, free wi-fi, beer, and tasty appetizers.  An interesting contradiction.

The 3-hour drive from Lubumbashi to mine site — fun!  And I mean that both literally and sarcastically.  The road was paved part of the way, gravel the rest, but I’m not sure which was rougher.  The paved roads were badly in need of repair, with car-size potholes making it a tad bumpy.  Along the route we passed many villages.  Homes are typically mud huts, little round or square structures made out of homemade mud bricks.  Roofs are usually grass.  Sometimes there would be a business area — always a hair salon!  Restaurants too, though both were unlike anything we’re used to.  Businesses were made out of cardboard and corrugated steel, marked by awnings on bamboo poles or sticks.  Here’s a quick shot of one village’s “downtown” through the window.  (Click on it to get a closer view.  Notice the electric pole!)

Each village we passed was full of activity.  Toddlers everywhere, playing or walking between huts.  It was rare to see a woman without a baby strapped to her back.  Men were commonly hauling something, often huge loads of charcoal, on their bicycles between villages along the route.  It’s amazing how much they can stack on top of a bicycle.

Unfortunately I have no good pictures of any of this because our driver was moving so fast.  On the gravel roads, we drove through a constant wall of dust.  Whenever visibility became too bad, he would just honk his way through it, rarely slowing down.  The same was true when passing through villages, despite people attempting to cross the road.  Honking rather than slowing down in a busy pedestrian area is apparently the customary way to claim right-of-way and avoid accidents.  Despite the borderline-crazy driving, our driver was this sweet old man named “Papa Toto” who was so kind, so cute — he would patiently try to describe things to me in French, and would laugh when I marveled at the surroundings.  I wanted to bottle up his grin.

At one of several “toll booths” along the drive, a military dude peered in the window and, despite the company markings on the truck, greeted me as a nun.  “Bonjour, ma sœur.”  Seb and Papa Toto had a good laugh over that one.  Must be my “angelic” super-pale skin.  We passed at least two billboards in Likasi advertising skin lightening cream, with a woman saying, “Maintenant, je suis un ange.” which means “Now, I’m an angel.”  Sigh.  Women are never happy with what they’ve got, it’s true.  Us white women spend loads of money in tanning booths, while beautiful black women are buying bleaching creams.

When we arrived on site, we found our freshly painted, fully furnished house ready to occupy.  It’s so nice!  We are certainly not roughing it here.  Here’s a shot of the kitchen, with flowers and bananas donated by the welcoming committee (aka, the expat wives).

We had a quick dinner of grilled ham & cheese sandwiches, lentil salad, and red wine — all donations from our awesome neighbors — and then went outside to see if we could spot the monkey who lives in the bamboo patch next to our house.  I only had to step outside with a plate of tomatoes and she made an easy appearance.  I was a tad apprehensive after being nearly mauled by monkeys in India, but this one is very sweet and tame.  Made my night!  Seb met her on a previous trip and said she didn’t already have a name, so I named her “Coco” in honor of the Coco Chanel movie I had watched on the plane.

I guess I do look very nun-like in the photo.  Amish, maybe.  It’s called very little sleep and lack of proper hair conditioner, people!

Conveniently, the next day was the weekly wives’ trip to a grocery store about ½ hour drive away.  The store is about the size of a convenience store back home, but has quite a lot of variety packed onto its shelves.  It’s not cheap, though, mostly goods from South Africa, China or India having made a long trek.  The ladies showed me around and assured me that the meat was safe to eat, even if it looks like it spent the past week sitting on the counter.  Later that night we enjoyed tough yet tasty lamb chops with peach and apricot chutney (“blatjang” in Afrikaans), cucumber and tomato salad, and more South African red wine.  Mmm.  Then we fed Coco a banana, and wandered off to see the “social club” on site, where we met some new people and enjoyed local Simba beer.  Haven’t experienced “the mess” yet, the local cafeteria where Egyptian cooks can feed us for $4 per meal, 3 meals per day.  The wives, who grow incredible gardens and prefer to cook at home, tell me it’s pretty terrible, but Seb disagrees.  We’ll check it out for Sunday brunch, for sure.

Some of the food I bought:

The salt says “See How It Runs” and shows a little boy chasing a chicken with it.  What??  The chutney-slash-blatjang.  Peanut butter, one of two varieties they sold (no Skippy or Jif, though), exotic “jungle” cereal, and butter that hopefully does NOT involve actual springbok.

The weather here is beautiful.  The climate is semi-tropical, with blooming jacaranda trees, aloes and palms — quite similar to where we came from, actually.  Year-round average temperature is 70 degrees, 66% humidity.  It can be a little warm in jeans or sleeves in the middle of the day, but otherwise it’s very pleasant.  Nights were chilly just a few weeks ago, so they say, but now we’re heading into spring and sweaters are no longer needed.  There goes a complete suitcase I packed.

As I’m writing this, there are two guys here putting together our BBQ and installing a mosquito net (we slept the last two nights without one, waking in the middle of the first night to a “buzz” in our ears… let’s hope the daily anti-malarial pill we are taking is good enough), and Viviane, our “domestic,” is cleaning the floors.  Yep, life as an expat wife is pretty tough.  Yesterday I fell asleep reading on the veranda outside.

So, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon!  I mean, DRC.  I’ll send another update in a week or so.  Maybe soon I’ll have more to share than what we ate for dinner, though that’s always fun. 🙂