Friday, July 29, 2005

Plane Goma

As I was flying over the Congo yesterday, I couldnt help but think I have one of the coolest jobs around. We had just taken off from Goma in a small nine-seater plane, incidentally, the same model that I rode into the bushes in Tunda (not the same plane though!). The day before I had left Kindu from Goma and we stopped in the city of Bukavu, located on lake Kivu near the Burundi border. The only two other passengers had gotten out, so it was just me and the pilot left for the twenty minute flight up the lake to Goma. The pilot is American, working for an organization that gives subsidized rates for NGOs in order to help us with our activities. I nearly had a heart attack when we came in for our Bukavu landing, because things just seemed a little wobbly and then this beeping noise went off which sounded suspiciously like the noise I heard right before we aborted our take off from Tunda. But not only did we land fine, but he explained some of these noises to me and I sat co-pilot from Bukavu to Goma. I wore the head set, the fancy seat-belt, and got the rundown on all of the gadgets in front of me. Plus, we flew low over the lake for the whole time. This area of the country is probably the most beautiful, hills surrounding a lake that looks more like a sea. As we came in for the landing, he pointed out that there were two landing strips not that far apart. The difference is that one, to our left, was in Congo, and the one to our right was in Rwanda. I resisted the urge to pull the wheel in front of me to the right. He also asked if I noticed that there was a large black patch at the end of the runway. It was like someone had taken a big black crayon and just colored a big rectangle at the end. That, he explained, was lava.

I remember when I heard about the Goma eruption, which was around five years ago, if Goma was really really unlucky. Two wars, one million refugees, armed movements from next door....and then...volcano erupts. More people died from looting gasoline than from the eruption itself.

I wish I had some pictures to post right now of all this. The airstrip was cut in half of its former lenght, and the lava is still there. There are still stores in town where only the second story is visible, the rest covered by black rock. There is a huge patch of lava that looks like Mad Max: burnt out cars and trucks sticking out at odd angles, like modern art gone awry.

So with these descriptions, it might be a surprise that I say Goma is quite nice. It's more hardcore than Kindu, as there are some arms around and crime, but it has nice hotels (better and cheaper than Kinshasa) and is right on Lake Kivu. As I sat outside having a beer, looking at the lake over the manicured lawn of the hotel, I could have been in the Alps. (The Alps comparison only holds for the restaurant-on-the-lake theme). Other than that, it's still Congo, still get kids asking for money, calling me muzungu, and all that jazz. It's like Goma is the lovechild of Kindu and Kinshasa set on a lake.

So, after having a taste of this (came for only 18 hours), as I sat in the plane heading back to Kindu via Bukavu, taking a final look at the lake, can you blame me for thinking this job rocks? Luckily, Congo has a way of always striking back, just when things are looking up. In Bukavu, after leaving the plane and reboarding following refueling, I was told that we probably couldnt land in Kindu because of low fog. Now, if you were heading to Boston from Atlanta you might get a little annoyed and have to take a later flight, but Kindu has only one or two flights a week. And I had thirty seconds to make up my mind to get on the plane of stay in Bukavu. Following a quick chat with my colleague (who was still in Gojma) we decided best I jump on the some point, of nothing else, it would end back in Goma. We didnt land in Kindu. And to top if off, I had to go to Kasongo, Kongolo, and Kaleme before making it back to Goma 8 hours after we had taken off. I got to see dirt runways galore, and if co-piloting the day before didnt do it, the tour got me back on the horse plane-wise. However, the last thing I wanted was a tour of runways as I slowly dehydrated and got bitchy from hunger. Upside, I am sitting in Goma, having accomplished such tasks today as setting dates for our seed fairs, ordering a couple thousand machettes, and renting a private plane for a couple activities next month.

My colleague still in Goma came through in a big way and got me on a plane saturday that is heading to Kasongo...they will just make a quick detour to Kindu to drop me off. Best part...I get to co-pilot again! We are transporting fuel so the rule is no passengers in the hull. We managed to get around this safety feature because apparently the rule does not stipulate that a passenger cannot ride in the co-pilot seat. For a recap regarding my rebound into small plane travel: Wednesday - two flights, co-pilot on second. Thursday - five flights, two dirt runways. Saturday - two flights, co-pilot, flying with fuel. Up that bar!

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Troops Arrive

Don't worry, not those kinda troops. More like reinforcements for my work here. One of them is my friend 007 in Africa. I was curious to how she would react to Kindu. She loves it. I can see why, there is a certain charm to it. It doesnt have the grit of Kinshasa, and there are a few colonial-esque buildings (you kinda have to squint to appreciate them). I think she was really expecting the worst for my apartment, so the fact that it wasnt some windowless shoebox made it seem lovely.

I think there is a different between staying and visiting, the difference between charm and annoyance. Luckily, this annoyance fades to resignation within a few months. Basically, there are things that will never change. It will never be quiet at night, water isnt going to magically flow from my faucets, the heat is here to stay, and the dating scene isnt going to pick up. Acceptance is key. Get over it, move on.

Our Roads manager has offered to teach me how to drive a motorcycle. I'm very excited. Might as well come home with new skills, whenever I do come. For now though, I am facing many challenges with planning activities in areas several hundred kilometers from Kindu. I've pretty much been flying solo with this up until yesterday, when our new base manager, 007 and a Kinshasa colleague arrived. I am nervous about the new base manager but things are fine. I've been working without a supervisor here for 2 months, so I'm used to just doing my own thing. It doesnt look like that's going to change, as I'm still in charge of the program management. Plus, I took a table from his adjoining apartment yesterday before he arrived because his has more furniture than mine and logistics has been slow on getting me a new table. My maid helped me, and after we took the table, she was like "should we take more stuff?" She was very into the mission. But I figured the transfer was a fair one and there was no need to move into all out raiding. The table is part is of new "kitchen" which is the table (woohoo!), two electric burners, and spices. I feel like such a Boston dinner parties with baked ziti, lovely salads, and chocolate cakes seem like a lifetime ago. Now I'm proud if I manage a tuna salad that doesnt poison me.

My new supervisor has already mentioned possibly getting a fridge ( I broke it to him that the last diesel fridge caught on fire and nearly burned down his apt.).

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Rats and Indian Food (unrelated)

I'm sitting at the office, working late on a Sunday. A couple of minutes ago I heard this rustling of paper. Our box that serves as a trashcan was literally bouncing and moving. Then this rat jumped out and just started milling around. I made some noise and he ran off. Once I even found rat poop on my desk. The nerve!

I did have a nice Sunday, up until the present moment of working and rat-watching. I played tennis and my partner and I won our second game, my first victory. After a nice cold bucket-bath I headed to the Indian base and had a lovely meal with my friends there. And last night I hung out with some Italians and an English friend who are pretty much the closest people in town to my age/cultural background. I think my English friend should start a blog because he has better Kindu stories than me, such as being accused of trying to start a war here and spying. Heehee! Plus he has three kittens and if his blog has nothing but pictures of them I'd still read it faithfully.
This is a village 15km from Tunda. The two women were quite lovely and enjoyed being in the photo. We went on bicycles to the village from Tunda and it was pretty funny. My bike was way too big for me. Plus, when I said I wanted to ride and not be a passenger, the men in Tunda were like, "are you SURE you can ride a bike?" I finally broke it to them that I had been riding one since I was five.  Posted by Picasa
This is Methodist church in Tunda, the village where I stayed for four days on an assessment mission and then for two more following our plane problems. The villagers still speak really highly of the American missionaries who came and built the church and hospital. They left in the 1960s. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

One more Ethiopia photo. Looking at my recent postings you'd forget I live in the Congo (as I sometimes try to do!). This is a monastery on a lake near Baha Dar. They have very famous paintings from the 15-17th centuries, like this one. The monasteries are circular. Posted by Picasa
A non-Ethiopia photo. This one is from the source of the Nile in Uganda. See that rapid? Nice, eh? One of many I went over with a group of fellow white-water rafters, who included two of the worst paddlers I have ever met and a guide whose advice was "if you fall out in a rapid, swim towards the light. Do not swim towards the dark. That the bottom." Posted by Picasa

Monday, July 11, 2005

Hammers in K-Town

Now they've moved on from testing chainsaws to hammering into the cement underneath my apartment (installing security bars for our warehouse). Unfortunately yesterday I was quite sick (just think of all manners that things can leave your body and combine that with a bucket flush toilet. ick!) so my energy and love for Kindu are on the down side. However, I will prevail. The important thing is to 1) have low life-style standards, 2) at least succeed at work, 3) wear ear-plugs, and 4) start planning that October trip to Tanzania. My new motto: Zanzibar will make everything okay.

Saturday night I went to the Indian base for a going away party for the Bolivian contigent. Being one of the only ex-pat girls in town, at least ten guys had their friend's take photos with me. I don't know what's Spanish for "this was my girlfriend in the Congo," but something tells me that that's going to be the story they tell.

Friday, July 08, 2005


Have posted some photos from Ethiopia. As you can see, it's a brillaint place.
Priest who is the guardian of a church tucked inside a cave 40 km outside of Lalibela.  Posted by Picasa
Cows in the fountain! (Gondar, Ethiopia) Posted by Picasa
Me at St. Georges Church in Lalibela. It's hard to get a feel for how large it is. Absolutely beautiful. Carved completely from solid rock. Posted by Picasa
Ethiopian nun outside of a church in Lalibela. Posted by Picasa

Chainsaws in K-Town

Made it back to Kindu, following three attempts to get on UN flights. In case people havent figured it out there was a law passed down during the post-independence flurry of legislation that required all Congo towns to be renamed with a "K" word. I'm kidding, it's some kind of koincidence.

I'm eerily happy to be back here. In a good mood last night, I even let this massive spider chilling on my bathroom wall live. Granted, I also had this vision of him attacking me if I tried to kill him with insect spray. Even waking up to the screaming children next door didnt bother me. Turns out today is also "let's test the project's chainsaws right outside the office window" day. So I've had conversations that include the phrase, "what was that? that last part of drowned out by the noise of two chainsaws harmonizing." And still, I laughed it off.

I think there should be a pool regarding exactly how long I can deal with chainsaws and spiders with a smile on my face. I am cautiously optimistic, however, that I have already dealt with the worst of Kindu and Congo, and having been slightly beaten down by that, I can only move up.

Monday, July 04, 2005

It's all about location

Yes, it's all about location. Think of the rent prices in Manhattan these days when you could buy a nice house in suburban surburbia for half of the price of a shoebox apartment in the city. Incredible. But I'm talking about our office location in Kinshasa. It's right next to the Independant Electoral Commission office.

Not only did the elections not happen (as foreseen), the electoral commission have apparently decided not to pay some of the people who worked for them (could have been foreseen). So those people are pretty irked and are forming a nice friendly mob just down the block. Maybe I should head out and take a photo! Just kidding. That would be silly. Anyways, they seem to be heading home.

I was quite dreading arriving in the Congo from Ethiopia. The airport is no JFK, that's for sure. But I just smile and act like the passport control guy is an old friend. I find it's much better to treat officials with friendliness rather than suspicion, not matter what you feel. Got through the checks just fine and crept into Dorothee's apartment around 7am, worn out. Nothing like leaving a place and coming back to it to make it feel more like home. Works every time.

Stay tuned for Ethiopia photos.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

I don't know how they manage it, but I swear, all flights in Africa leave at the worst possible times. How's 3:45am for ya?

Airport tired me.

Friday, July 01, 2005

From Ethiopia

Been meaning to get to the internet, but half-hearted attempts for doing anything in Africa usually end in nothing getting done. So now I am paying an exhorbant rate at the Hilton because I don't feel like leaving the little luxurious exile that I have created here.

Ethiopia is a pretty amazing country. Started in Addis, then went to Ba Hadar, Gondar, Lalibela, and Aksum (all of which I am sure I mispelled). Can't wait to post some photos. Who knew that this place was full of such famous stuff. In fact, the Ark of the Covenant is supposedly here (if it in fact exists). There is a book called the Sign and the Seal that's all about whether it exists, and if it does, if its in Ethiopia. Even more importantly, an episode of the Amazing Race was filmed here. My tour guide in Lalibela worked for them and told me all about it. I still think my twin sister and I should be on that program. While we would have a good shot at winning, it's more the entertainment value that would be interesting.

I am checked into the Hilton because this trip is supposed to be relaxing, so thought i would tag some luxury on the end. I've been waking up early for flights and sight-seeing, got really sick one night (ick), and get tailed by kids asking me for money in any town where I walk. Kinda like Congo! (but without the sight-seeing). Speaking of my home away from home, June 30th came and went, with a death toll of only about seven. Not that that's good of course, but it had potential do be much worse. I imagine my friends are still holed up at the American school and at this point are probably beginning to cycle together. Best of luck, girls. Don't worry, gifts are one their way. Luckily the expat upper management are fine since they are...well...out of the country.

I think my decision to not go to America was a good one. It would have broken my Africa momentum and would have made going back to the Congo pretty hard. It would have only taken one night of good thai food with my girl friend in NY for me to think, "why the heck am i living in the Congo?" But the grass is always greener on the other side of the third world country. I know when I do go domestic I will miss riding on the backs of motorcycles and heading to remote villages by helicopter. I might even miss the uniqueness of living in that hot little dustball of Kindu. Who knows.

Heading back to Kinshasa tomorrow night, assuming that things are stable there.