Rollin’ on the Congo River (A Story of Silver Linings)

There’s a reason we’ve been living in Congo this long but haven’t taken any major vacations here. We’ve read nearly every book about this place we could get our hands on over the years, and every single one of them tells crazy stories about corruption and danger, sorcery and poisonings, exotic diseases and dramatic plane accidents. At the very least, and by far the most common, travelers suffer failed plans while they part with lots of cash to get moving, or to get past the authorities who notoriously mis-stamp passports so their compatriots down the road can collect fines.

Then there’s this lovely warning from the US State Department:

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We don’t live in nor are we traveling to any of those particular provinces, for the record, but the article alarmingly goes on. (Click here for the full text.)

In the midst of all this supposed chaos and danger, yes, we do live here. But we live in a little bubble, surrounded by security personnel and fixers, protected from the masses waiting outside our relatively safe houses and vehicles and planes that take us from one relatively safe place to another. To purposely leave our little bubble and tiptoe into the wild sounded rather foolhardy.

Which is why my very rational and prudent husband always said “no” to my frequent prodding to see more of this country. (Like here, and here.) I’ve long been asking to see Kinshasa, one of the world’s most chaotic cities, full of destitution but also of hope, home to more than 11 million people trying to eke out a living in very creative ways. I’ve also been asking to see more remote villages; in particular I wanted to share at least one traditional meal with a local family out in the bush. Early on I remember suggesting that I go spend a couple of nights with a local family, so that I could experience village life and culture, and see how people lived. (Even my Congolese friend back in Tucson said “not a good idea” to this one.)

So when an opportunity came along to go on an organized tour visiting Kinshasa, Mbandaka, and traveling down the Congo River between them, there was no way I was going to miss out. To convince Seb, it helped that six other friends were going, the leader being our born-in-Rhodesia doctor who spends his free time adventuring all around Africa, including recent travel near this particular destination with this particular tour operator. But even that wasn’t enough. I also had to play the “it’s my birthday” card, as well as agree that he gets to pick the next five vacation destinations.

It finally worked. And so we packed our bags — most importantly, our first aid kit — and made sure our expectations were nice and low. Expectations make all the difference, I’ve found. If you expect very little, you’ll often be pleasantly surprised.

Here’s how they measured up.

We expected cockroaches and undrinkable water in the Kinshasa hotel rooms that bookended the trip, and we found them. But we also found surprisingly clean beds, a surprisingly good Indian restaurant, and even hot water on the way back through, a godsend after 8 days without. We expected squalor in the city, and we found it. (Our hotel, for example, was hidden behind piles of trash and potholes so big our van could not pass through. And this was considered a nice part of town.) But we also found wide, new paved roads in places, surprisingly clean sidewalks, and some pretty fountains, buildings, and art. We expected begging and banditry and lots of outstretched hands, and we found them. But we also found lots of smiling faces, huge friendly waves, and from time to time, the kindness of strangers helping us out of tight spots. We expected chaos at the airports and lots of bribery at immigration checkpoints, and boy oh boy did we find that. But we made it through, and now we have great stories to tell.

On the boat itself, we expected cramped spaces and a barely concealed place to squat for a bathroom. Our friends who had traveled by boat in Vietnam’s early days of development predicted being able to wave at passing boats from the squatter. What we found was a boat slightly roomier than envisioned, clean enough, even decorated a bit. And there was an actual toilet, behind actual walls on four sides. Okay, so the toilet emptied directly into the river, and the wood joints were cracked enough to facilitate eye contact with the crew who seemed to choose those particular moments to lounge on a mattress a few feet away, but at least the screaming of the motor provided some cover.

The food we ate on the boat was cooked over hot coals in a large tin drum, and the dishes were washed in the brown river water, mere meters away from the aforementioned toilet. Our trash was thrown in there too. I had expected some major traveler’s diarrhea, imagining we’d be fighting each other for access to the one toilet, but that never happened. A few meals were served out of tins (who knew sardines, canned corn, and ketchup over pasta could make a decent lunch?), but usually the food was fresh, and often it was delicious. Freshly-caught fish was the typical main, but we also ate crocodile, beef, and field chicken. Plantains and/or sweet potatoes made a regular appearance on the side along with local greens, usually amaranth. Fresh pineapple and bananas for dessert, omelets and plantains for breakfast, usually. We had all packed our own trail mixes and granolas and homemade fruit or meat jerky, which came in handy between meals, but weren’t ever used for survival as I had envisioned.

We bathed in the same river that served as sewer and trash collection for us as well as the entire country. At night, by the way, so we didn’t have to see what was in there with us. I doubt Seb and I would have ever been brave enough to go in were it not for the others leading the way. But wow, did it feel good and refreshing. And surreal! Here we are in the real-life heart of darkness, the Congo River, and we’re bathing in it by starlight. When I inquired about schistosomiasis (aka bilharzia, or snail fever, found in most rivers and lakes throughout Africa), the good doctor laughed and said, “I always say having a few parasites is a good thing. Helps build your immunity in case there’s ever a lot.”

Speaking of the heart of darkness, I think I subconsciously expected to see some otherworldly scenes. For one, I expected a dark, raging river. In a sense, we found it. One night while we were bathing we had to work hard against a current so strong it seemed it could have carried us all the way to Kinshasa, maybe even faster than the boat. And the water was dark, dark with what I heard the geologists optimistically say was iron-rich soil. I also expected we’d have to dodge crocodiles snapping at our fingers if we dangled them off the boat’s edge, and hippos that threatened to upturn us at any moment. A Congolese friend had earnestly warned me about these two creatures living in the river, but our guides — namely, our doctor — assured us there were none at least in this part of the river, having been eaten long ago.

We camped in various places along the shoreline in brand-new double-size tents, a totally unexpected bonus. They were cheap and had poor ventilation, but they worked, and the only stains and smells on the inside were from us and the dozens of mosquitos we splattered before bed most nights. The only malaria anyone caught, though, happened to one of the crew members, who bounced back within hours. The doctor’s skills and medicine bag came in handy for him and our cook who accidentally burned her foot with hot oil, as well as himself with infected blisters from his boots. Otherwise, no medical dramas, thankfully. We still might need to wait a few weeks to declare ourselves exotic-disease free, but so far the only evidence I have that I was there are the few stubborn dirt stains under my toenails.

I expected to be robbed at some point, or at least pick-pocketed. Instead, our crew ran around picking up things we had left behind and reminding us not to forget them. There was the human barricade of angry young bandits when we disembarked at the port in Kinkole (one of the most colorful and crazy places I’ve ever been, by the way), but our tour operator took them on, physically blocking them while opening a hole for us to sneak through safely.

There was, of course, plenty of money that changed hands at the multiple hours-long migration stops. There were also several beers handed out (of our stash!) to grease the wheels, and I even saw a cooking pot handed over once. But you know what the silver lining is here? I’ve come to think of bribery and extortion as more civilized forms of stealing. They want you to know you’re being robbed, and agree to it, before any money changes hands.

Of course I’m kidding. This is part of the corruption that makes Congo completely uncivil, and it must change. But until it does, we’re grateful to our tour operator that he was there to negotiate at every stage. Imagine the outcome if we’d tried to take on the authorities ourselves. As one of our friends said several times during the trip, “This is why we paid him a handsome sum for this trip. He gets us access to places we could never go alone.”

Speaking of extortion and handsome sums, one very unfortunate thing did happen along the way. Our crew showed up with the boat in Mbandaka, our starting point, and announced they were already out of cash. They needed more money if we expected them to buy gas and food and supplies for the entire week-long trip downriver. The fact that this was an all-inclusive tour, paid in full in advance, didn’t seem to matter. They promised to pay us back at the end. That has yet to happen, and personally I doubt that it ever will.

The silver lining here? Two things. Given the stories I’ve heard about travel in this country, I’m amazed that the boat showed up at all. I’m amazed that one of the two motors actually worked, that they had tents for everyone, and plane tickets, and that they managed to feed us three times a day. I’m amazed given the amount of moonshine we saw them consume, and the late nights they enjoyed playing cards or watching movies thanks to the noisy generator that kept us awake in our tents, that our crew was capable of piloting the boat at all. In the grand scheme of things they did deliver the goods… though with some significant changes to the itinerary, and several days of complete inactivity as we puttered down the river, trying to make up time for having half the planned horsepower.

And the second thing? I finally got my Congo story. This is how it was supposed to end. If it had been 100% fair and above board, I think I would have felt cheated out of a truly classic Congolese adventure.

Seb surprised me last night by telling me he’d had a good time, and would even do it again. This time it was me who had to hesitate before saying… well, yes. Of course, yes! What am I thinking? YES.

That’s the thing about adventures. The best ones take you through these huge arcs, from hating the place and wondering if you should have stayed home, to loving it so much you hate to leave. You go from declaring the people untrustworthy, unfriendly, out to get you — to wanting to kiss anyone who smiles at you on the cheek while considering changing your citizenship.

Kinshasa, see you again soon.

12 comments

  1. That was one amazing adventure! No way would I ever do it myself, but you have the story to tell firsthand about the journey, what you saw, ate, and smelled. Just wish you wouldn’t have mentioned bathing in the river where waste is dumped, human and otherwise. Now I have to worry about you both staying healthy! So glad to hear that you are back home, safe and sound.

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  2. What a happy birthday present you had!! Your descriptions made me feel that I was right there with you and could see the dark river and not know what was in it. (Best NOT to know). You know I would never venture out on a trip like that! Thanks for your wonderful story.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It would be irresponsible of me not to mention that Seb and I take malaria prophylactics EVERY DAY. We know lots of people who don’t, a good proportion of whom HAVE caught malaria. We’re happy with our pills (Malarone or its generic) and don’t have any side effects… that we know of. (Some things are hard to put a finger on.) There are a lot more side effects with the weekly pill (Larium), but everybody’s different; personally I think Larium’s pretty bad for long-term use, but should be fine for a short trip. There’s also a low-dose antibiotic you can take every day but doesn’t work for us because of the susceptibility to sunburn. (Even Seb who tans very nicely doesn’t like it.)

    Just an FYI for anyone reading this for future travel advice. Malaria kills. TAKE YOUR PILLS.

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