travel

The Seventh Year

How on earth is it September again already? Last I looked it was March.

September 1st seven years ago we began our little adventure over here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the time, we thought we might stay a year or two. I remember telling a friend we might even be back within six months, because the company’s contract was currently being renegotiated with the government and nobody could predict how that was going to turn out. Signs weren’t altogether positive as there had been a little skirmish nearby and the spouses had been evacuated while we were packing up our things in Tucson, delaying our departure by a couple of days.

That event passed, the spouses came back just in time to welcome a new one, and seven years later — one signed contract, a couple more evacuations, one global ebola scare (plus lots of local ones that no one abroad ever hears of), seven rainy seasons, zero cases of cholera/yellow fever/typhoid/malaria between us (but numerous giardia flare-ups, two entirely self-inflicted salmonella incidents and one self-diagnosed case of trichinosis), one cancelled presidential election, and one major change in company ownership later — here we still are. It turns out, we’ve not once regretted it. Giardia included.

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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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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

A Resolution, a Warning, and a Prologue

I’ve been eager to post more photos and stories about our trip down the Congo River ever since I wrote up my general impressions in this first post. But because many of my photos identify the company we traveled with — such as the one conspicuously placed above — I agreed to wait, in order to give them plenty of time to pay back our trip leader for the cash they “borrowed.” (Click the link above if you missed the story.) For awhile we remained on standby, poised to unleash the power of the internet to help trash their business reputation. Then another email would surface, more time would be granted, and we waited.

Here’s what eventually happened. Continue reading

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: Continue reading

On Snoozefests and Shitholes

You may have noticed I haven’t written up very many of our vacations here on the blog. I was thinking they wouldn’t fit since the blog is is supposed to be mainly about Congo. I’m starting to change my mind, though, as we’ve taken a lot of our vacations in various parts of Africa, which is kind of relevant, plus we’ve learned a lot about our host country through the eyes of its neighbors. Tomorrow we’re heading to Lesotho (geography quiz, anyone?), after good friends recommended it to us. We’ll be hiking for six days, camping overnight in different caves, and sharing a hut with a local Basotho family. The rest of the two weeks we’ll try pony-trekking, dinosaur footprint-hunting, and abseiling/rappelling the world’s longest commercial drop if we can keep our nerves together… it should be an adventure! Continue reading