Bonne Année de la Côte d’Azur!

Just a quick update to let you all know the latest news — Tout va bien au Congo. The election period passed without too many problems, although without a new president, either. The administration and the opposition have agreed to hold elections later this year, although I’ve heard that both sides are missing notable signatories. So we’ll see. In the meantime, everyone is back to work as normal chez nous, and last week they even gave the spouses permission to return. If I hadn’t already paid for a month of French classes, I would have jumped on the same plane as Seb.

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Happy Holidays from the desert!

Before I disappear for the next two months, I wanted to take one last opportunity to post something. This one is much easier to read and digest than my last post, I promise! No MBA required here — topics and photos include desert beauty, food, more food, fun exercise to work off that food, and a thank-you note to some very important people.

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News from Congo (and Tucson)

Before we get started, here’s a quick update on who’s currently where, which will hopefully make my vague references to places like “here” and “there” a little more clear in the post that follows. Hmm, maybe I should preface every post with this little segment… let’s call it “Where in the world are you??”

Where in the world is Seb? He’s in Congo, where he returned a week ago — after a 10-day business trip to Arizona over Thanksgiving, and a week of management classes in Colorado. He was initially told to stay put in the U.S. rather than return to Congo, given the events that shall be discussed below, but he managed to talk the bosses into how “essential” he was. Great job, honey! (The good news is, he’ll be leaving again soon.)

Where in the world is Jen? I’m in Tucson, where I’ve been staying in a corporate apartment for almost six weeks now. Except for a quick trip to Canada, I’ve been in the U.S. since mid-August — mostly at the company’s request, to avoid predicted election violence. (Congo’s election; not, you know, ours. Another chapter in the book of irony, right after the one about hurricanes.*) No word yet on when or if I can return to Congo.

Ok, end of introductory segment. Now on to the real news.

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Dodging Hurricanes

A friend of mine described the election politics happening in Congo right now as “trying to guess the course of a hurricane.” She was speaking metaphorically, of course, having said this several weeks before Hurricane Matthew started churning in the Caribbean. She had no idea those hurricane-force politics — which kept me from returning to Congo as planned, instead keeping me on the ground in Florida with my folks — inadvertently put me directly in the path of an actual hurricane.

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Goodbye, Base Camp

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.  Continue reading

Home Again

Hello friends and family, just wanted to send a quick note to let you know that we arrived home safely after adventuring around Italy. And relatively intact, too, though one of us may have sore muscles and a few bruises after an amateurish attempt at some serious biking. Lessons learned: Florence is still lovely but entirely full of tourists rather than Italians. Rome should be avoided completely, unless you MUST see the historical sights and don’t mind other people’s selfie sticks in your face and all your photos. Both of these cities would be better visited in the off-season. They say winter is nice. I’ve never been to Venice but I hear it’s just as touristy. Unfortunately, all three of these amazing cities may have become too popular for their own good.

The bright side is, Italy is full of beautiful surprises if you just get off the beaten path a little bit. My mom taught me this sixteen years ago when she booked us at a rural Tuscan “agriturismo” — a working farm that offers rooms to visitors, kind of like a B&B but often you can have lunch or dinner as well (and you definitely should). My brother taught me this too when he took us to see the small Tuscan towns he became familiar with during his semester abroad. These are the spots where you start to “get” Italy. And the food is better, too. Trust me, there is no bigger waste than having a bad meal while in Italy.

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Ciao!

A quick hello and goodbye here, in the Italian fashion. We’re off tomorrow to ride bikes around Tuscany, putting my recent half-hearted gym training to the test. (Actually, I did all right in the gym… just being hard on myself as usual.)

I’m only halfway through the Congo River posts, but have given you A LOT to read already and can see that more time might be a good thing for both you and me. Besides, I’m almost out of my monthly internet allotment already! Couldn’t finish now even if I tried.

In other news, it was hard to say “ciao” today to my English students. Goodbye, but this time for good. I’ve spent the past five years teaching as a volunteer, and am ready to move on to other things. It’s bittersweet to say goodbye, though. There are a few who aren’t really interested in much besides what gifts they can get from me, but the vast majority are very sweet people who only want to learn. I will miss these guys! They have made my life here in Congo much more complete.

Today we had a little graduation party, as we wrapped up our Michel Thomas series and I passed out certificates for those who managed 60% or better attendance over the past 15 months. (There might have been cookies and a few other little surprises, too, but don’t tell anybody.)

I’d also like to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my mom today! Hope Rudy treats you to a night out on the town; wish I could be there to bake you some cookies. And HAPPY FATHER’S DAY this weekend to Dad, Rudy, Réjean, Ryan, Frédéric, and all you other fabulous dads out there! May you sit around under a tree all day, drinking beer or moonshine or palm wine, while your womenfolk bring you everything you need. (But just that one day, okay? Otherwise that shit will make you lazy.)

Ciao!

Mbandaka: Welcome to the Jungle

After an hour’s flight from Kinshasa that included a breakfast tray of three kinds of stale bread and an equally stale cup of coffee, we landed in Mbandaka, a city that sits on the Equator where the Congo River no longer forms the border between the two Congos but instead sneaks inland a bit into ours. From here, the river continues north for awhile before starting its dramatic arc southwards. (Technically it flows the other way around — beginning in the highlands of DR-Congo and Zambia, semi-circling the country and exiting into the Atlantic Ocean — but I think you know what I mean.) Since it crosses the Equator twice, it’s always in a rainy season somewhere, making it second only to the Amazon in terms of flow rate. It drains into the Atlantic Ocean with so much force that it’s carved out a canyon below the seabed 1,000 meters deep, and fresh water can be found in the ocean 200 kilometers out. (Source: Blood River by Tim Butcher.) Experts say that if the power of this river could be properly harnessed, it could provide electricity for all of sub-Saharan Africa.

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Kinshasa: A City of Surprises

As our trip was about to begin, most of us confessed to harboring a few worries about what could potentially go wrong. Some of us were petrified of snakes, while others (namely, our herpetologist-slash-doctor) were worried about not seeing enough of them. Some of us were afraid of warlords or other madmen; others were afraid of catching a new malady that would come to be named after them. Personally, my number one fear came from my Bradt guidebook: “People new to exotic travel often worry about tropical diseases, but it is accidents that are most likely to carry you off. Road accidents are very common in many parts of the Congos so be aware and do what you can to reduce risks: try to travel during daylight hours, always wear a seatbelt, and refuse to be driven by anyone who has been drinking.”

We’ve seen our fair share of road accidents already, and we know that drinking and driving is extremely common here. A Congolese mentor once told me that it’s normal for professional bus drivers to be at least a little drunk, and that passengers encourage the driver to drink more because they think the alcohol will make him braver and able to go faster.

So it wasn’t new news to me but still, this passage stuck with me. It turned me into the seatbelt nazi of our trip. But on par with my worries about road transportation, were my worries about air transportation. Continue reading