After nearly six years of residence here in base camp, the day we’ve been mentally preparing for has finally arrived. No, I’m not talking about coming home for good, though that possibility always exists — I’m talking about moving thirty minutes down the road to our other residence camp, called Bravo. It’s far less dramatic than leaving Congo, for sure, but for us this shift is still significant.
Seb and I have been hearing the rumors about moving camps for so long now that it was hard to give them much credibility. And once we settled in, it became even harder to envision switching. In fact, we used to say that the day they made us move would be the day we’d say goodbye for good!
Why? Because we fell in love with hilly base camp, with our spacious red-tiled house, with Lucy the monkey just outside, with all the colorful old trees around us and the songs of their winged occupants. We enjoyed the proximity to town for the occasional dinner, or beer, or Sunday morning market run. Seb, especially, enjoyed that he could walk to work and come home for lunch, since his office is also at base camp! Bravo camp seemed comparatively… well, boring. It’s flat, comparatively treeless, and laid out in a grid, populated mostly with long rows of dormitories chock-full of contractors and laborers. It always struck us as a personality-less, army-style “man camp.”
But both camps have been changing. The trees have been growing at Bravo, and the town of Fungurume has been growing at Base. Today the plant and main offices are nearly an hour’s commute away, yet base camp remains on the edge of an unsustainably burgeoning town, whose population of 50,000 at the start has since tripled. The national highway runs just outside, bringing with it lots of traffic, noise, dust, and transients. The Green Wall is gone, as we’re blasting and mining the hills just outside base camp, making the place a lot less amenable to sundowners and hikers. The nearby blasts shaking and rattling the windows were starting to become an expected part of the daily routine, as the ever-increasing cracks in our walls can attest.
With the help of our friends whose glasses are always half full, now we see the advantages of living in Bravo camp. It’s situated off in the boonies, by itself, which means no public traffic, and more control over who enters. It’s within minutes of our private airport, an advantage in the event of an emergency. Not to mention an extra thirty minutes of sleep on travel days. Plus, there’s personal benefits. The grocery store is there. The restaurant is there. (Operated by the same catering company that runs the mess hall, but still, a nice option to have.) There’s a bigger social club, and a bigger, better gym. There’s even a golf course, in case we ever decide to learn how to play! The countryside and the airstrip are within walking/biking distance, and there’s no need to get security clearance to leave the gates and go exploring. Which means a lot more freedom for those of us who are stuck at home all day long without wheels.
But there’s a lot we’ll be leaving behind. Viviane, for one. She’s been mentally preparing for this day, as well. I’ve been honest with her from the beginning about our eventual departure for one reason or another, urging her to save money while she has the chance, and to understand that she can’t count on us forever. From time to time she’s heard the rumors about base camp shutting down, and asks me about it. My answer has always been, “Someday, maybe, but not yet.” This time, we had to explain that someday has arrived.
I’ve asked her several times before if she wouldn’t rather stop working, now that her husband has a good job and she has two kids bouncing from one unreliable babysitter to another. She always thinks about it and then declines, saying, “I want to stay with you until the end.” As we broached the topic again now, she admitted that it might actually be good timing. Olivier is about to start school in a few weeks, and she was already concerned about getting him well-fed and prepped for school on her work days, and — surprise — baby #3 is due in December.
Viviane has been one of the most hardworking and trustworthy people I could ever envision in this job. We have been lucky. While there is a bright side to this scenario for both of us (her spending more time with her kids, me having more privacy in the house), it will be difficult to say goodbye after all this time together.
And Lucy! Poor Lucy. It’s funny, nearly everyone thinks of her immediately when we talk about leaving. All the base camp residents who consider moving to Bravo do, too. As a group we used to brainstorm about moving her to Bravo with us. Maybe someday, the last one will find a way to bring her over. But for now, she has her home in the bamboo, and plenty of ways to feed herself (though she prefers having someone feed her, of course, the lazy monkey) — and besides, I have no idea how we would physically move her. She was captured once before and shows people her mean streak every now and then. She has super-sharp, long teeth. I would NOT want to get on her bad side.
The morning after we started moving out, exactly three weeks ago, Lucy came to me as if she knew it was time to say goodbye. She was extra-sweet in her chirping at the window to get my attention, in lifting her arm for an extra-long scratch, in leaning into it in her characteristic way that my cat has learned to mimic. After her scratch, she looked me in the eye for what felt like an extra-meaningful moment before taking the banana offering from my hand, and then, without so much as a backwards glance, bouncing away into the bamboo. Cheeky monkey.