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!


Blogger Mom said...

As to this latest posting, all I can say is "" (said with awe and wonder). Your adventures just never end, do they? (As Gilda Radner used to say doing her character Rosannadanna, "It's always something.") I wish I could see pictures of all this stuff -- did you not bring your camera to Goma?

11:37 PM  
Blogger Black River Eagle said...

Like your reader "Mom" says, WOW! Really interesting posting. You keep right-seating with those Yankee pilots over there and you can become an (un)official Bush Pilot in no time flat. It will compliment those Jungle Rally dirtbike (motorcycle) lessons you've been taking on the side.

Watch travelling in light aricraft transporting extra fuel though, not a very good idea at all. I've seen the results when things go very wrong on fuel-laden aircraft, not a pretty site.

Hey, some people in Goma should get together and find an export market for all of that lava lying around. There are uses and markets for natural lava you know. It would be a great self-help project for a local NGO or small business startup program. Guess what country could be the biggest consumer of lava stone from the Congo?

12:36 PM  
Blogger 007 in Africa said...

Glad to have you back! We'll have to see about videoblogging our stuff...

4:16 PM  
Blogger Louis said...

did you have breaded tilapia at the hotel karibu?

just north of the airport you can go see the place from which the lava emerged... some cool lava towers there... also, if you have time, go to the volcanological station and see if there's an expedition going up Mt. Nyiragongo... it's a tough hike but really, really worth it as you can see actual bubbling lava.

also, try and check if the volcanic cone is glowing at night. Cheers!

1:38 AM  
Blogger Black River Eagle said...

Darn Louis. Don't you think that Sarah's Mom is worried enough without you suggesting that the laides take a hike up to the caldera of an active volcano in the middle of the jungle, peek over the edge to see if the lava is still hot?

Never mind my buddy Lou from NYC girls, you know how wreckless those independent documentary filmmakers can be...:-)

Now an ariel view of the volcano with Sarah at the wheel of the aircraft going in low for closeup shots is another matter. Oder?

1:17 PM  
Blogger Sahara Sarah said...

Actually, my mom beat me to the lava. Just last month she was checking out volcanos in costa rica. (naturally, she probably didnt have armed guards).

i do hope to hike the volcano but i think i am more interested in taking a drive to kigali next time i am in goma. i here the road is incredible...

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