A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: mjsimek

Toilet Water and the Ferry to Goma

A taste of luxury with an aftertaste of gratuitousness

View les deux Congos on mjsimek's travel map.

The Emmanuel 2, the newest and pleasantest ferry working the Bukavu/Goma route, departs for its 6-hour journey at 7am, or 7:30, or in my case, about 8:10. The morning of my Bukavu departure, I awoke to find the recessed floor in my bathroom filled with just enough clean water from the leaking toilet pipe to allow me to down my antimalarial medication in the unquestionably contraindicated manner of tap water on an empty stomach and clean my hiking shoes at the same time. Expedient, as it was getting late.

Entering the port was one of those times when I did not regret the questionable sum paid to DRC tour operators for their arrangements and ministrations. The place swarmed with police and opportunists looking to rid you of your cash or your dignity. I was guided through untouched. Thank you, GoCongo.

Third class was with the cars and market goods, and it was packed. I was told that second class was preferred by richer Congolese over first class as there was a buffet, music, and a livelier atmosphere. First class, however, was the nicest I've seen on any ferry worldwide.

I would not have chosen the décor for my house, mind you, what with large-grain leather sofas with wide arms and shiny tables with inlaid faux Mother of Pearl; however, it comprised the entire top deck of the ship and was selectively populated. It was like six or so living rooms gathered into one, and it was an unexpected luxury. I rested, ate, enjoyed a few drinks, chatted with my guide, and took the occasional trip to the front deck of the ship to watch the Congo on the left, Idjwi Island and Rwanda on the right, and contemplate the situation I would enter upon disembarkation.

Goma has known war, and it was again a desirable target of offensive forces. The rebels needed a bigger bargaining chip with the Kabila government. The capture of Goma, the primary international exit point for valuable regional minerals and the most populous city in the Kivus, had been as unthinkable as it had now become fearfully plausible. Thousands of UN troops were repositioned to villages and stations throughout Virunga National Park just north of Goma, leaving a security vacuum in the places from which the troops had been pulled. The entire region was (and still is as of this writing) on the threshold of revisiting a recent history that most of its current inhabitants had been only lucky enough to survive the first time.

The city itself was still at peace, however; the airport was still under government and UN control; and, although the world media seems to have ignored them this time around, there were people there, PEOPLE, who were stoically dealing with another tribulation. A visit to Goma at that time, especially alongside a local, offered an incomparable ingress into a conflict that could as easily have been our own, were it not for the location of our birth. It may have been holiday brinksmanship, but I would leave richer in mind than I had been imperiled in body. It was safe enough, and I was going in.

Posted by mjsimek 07:19 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

Bukavu, Gorillas, and the First Congo War (part two)

View les deux Congos on mjsimek's travel map.

GoCongo, my tour company in DRC, has all necessary expertise to arrange gorilla visitation in Virunga National Park, Africa's first national park, just north of the town of Goma. Due to the conflict with the M23 rebels, my tour had to be changed from Virunga to Kahuzi-Biéga National Park. This meant missing the chance to overnight on top of Nyiragongo, an active volcano containing the largest of only five permanent lava lakes in the world (Google it, but only if you are wearing diapers; it looks positively Tolkien). Nyiragongo was what drew me initially to visit the Kivus, but what can I do; war is war, and now I have a reason to come back!

The change to Kahuzi-Biéga included an amendment to my itinerary to visit CRSN, le Centre de Recherche en Sciences Naturelles (monoglot Anglophones should have no problem translating that one), at Lwiro. The visit to this center, which is also home to a chimpanzee sanctuary, was done on a separate day instead of alongside the gorilla visit, as my "scheduled" gorilla trek was "scheduled" for a day when gorilla trekking was not offered. This being Africa, the fault for this could have been anyone’s. It was a terrific mistake, however, as it gave me more time to visit the charming environment of CRSN and talk with the dedicated and under- and often unpaid research center staff.

The center was originally founded in 1947 as part of I.R.S.A.C. (in English, the Institute for Scientific Research in Central Africa), by Prince Charles of Belgium, son of King Albert. I.R.S.A.C. was comprised of five research centers spread throughout Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi and was devised to be the African extension of the National Foundation of Scientific Research founded in 1928 in Belgium by King Albert. It is now a stand-alone center, but the research work continues, during peace and during war. The grounds are filled with both local and Belgian flora, numerous research departments, animals present and presently dead, and a wondrous library, the oldest or largest (or both) in Central Africa, depending on if my guide or a 1954 Belgian report (or both) is correct. The library was constructed in a local dark wood in a Colonial style. There is an aged card catalog system at the entrance and a lovely redolence which one encounters today only amidst collections of non-disk-based knowledge. The main reading room and the stacks, accessible to researchers, subscribers, and tourists, form a three-storey collection of books, most long since out of print, from around Africa and Europe and from across all disciplines of the natural sciences. A fee is charged per checked out book to fund the perpetual book rebinding efforts on the library's third floor. On the walls outside the library are tusks from an elephant killed in 1943. The sign beneath them states that they hold the world record for their length, ca. 3.5 meters. Only about a meter of these tusks remain, however, as it used to be the custom for tourists to take pieces of the tusks with them as they visited. The tour also included rooms filled with jar-preserved reptiles and amphibians, live snakes kept for humane study and the production of anti-venom, a room dedicated to stuffed local animals and primate skeletons, and an adorable live baby turtle rooming contentedly with a forty years dead desiccated version of itself. We could not, however, visit the chimpanzees! The estate is large and they can be heard throughout, but they were in the process of being transferred into a spacious, protected, natural environment on estate grounds and the Spanish organization funding the project deemed visitations during the transition time to be too distressing to the animals. Instead, we visited some large snakes, caged outside right next to their next meals. In addition, there is a small museum of two rooms which the center is trying to increase to a size more appropriate to the magnitude of their collection. I received a personal, hands-on tour, led by the director of the estate, of cultural artifacts from around the country. The museum rooms included scarification razors, a traditional umbrella (like a woven basket, covering the face and draping down the back), a variety of fétiches, and the museum's true national treasure, a platform used centuries ago to transport the king (of which tribe or area, I do not know).

The day after visiting CRSN and Bukavu's surrounding hills, I awoke early to squeeze in a quick breakfast at the hotel's restaurant (constructed in 1947, about as grand as the library at CRSN, and, as one of the waiters told me, "The most beautiful thing the Belgians left us!"). The omelets were oily and the coffee was tasteless, but sometimes, eating is about the ambience. We arrived at the entrance to Kahuzi-Biéga National Park's visitor center through some of the villages that 30% of the trekking fee goes to support (not bad if you ignore that 50% goes to Joseph Kabila Kabange's government). After shelling out an amount that is almost twice the per capita annual income in the DRC as of 2011, learning a few "gorilla rules", and meeting my three fellow trekkers and the rangers, we left to one of the entry trails into the jungle. July is the dry season in the part of the Congo below the Equator, which includes most of the country, and the gorillas, who do not eat meat, forage for fruit throughout the day. This makes them quite difficult to catch sight of, and the team of rangers already in the park were communicating their changing positions via walkie-talkie. The trail was about half a meter wide at most points and blissfully mostly empty of crawling insects. After about an hour of trekking, we met up with the rangers who were already in the jungle tracking the chosen gorilla family. It was decided that in order to find them, we would have to make a new trail. Soon after the machete came out, the Australian girl in our group politely let me go ahead of her so she could talk to her boyfriend (and I could be the closest to the swinging machete). Thanks again, if you're reading this :). Twenty minutes of punishing walking later, we heard the gorillas in the trees. After watching them for a few minutes in the trees and disappointingly far away, each member of the family of 14 (I think it was) came out of the trees and walked right by us to a place where they seemed to have previously patted down the vegetation. We were meant to keep a distance of seven meters at all times. Indeed. As they passed, it was more like one and a half meters maximum. In the patted down area, the gorillas proceeded to lie down, play and rest. Each trekking group gets one hour maximum with an encountered family, so most of our time was spent very close to them, watching them play, rest, snuggle, sneeze, and groom each other. I took numerous pictures and videos throughout the time and I will be posting a movie I've made from them on YouTube as soon as I can get it off of iMovie on my Mac in decent quality. The only version I've been able to upload so far is in two parts and the quality is annoyingly poor. Full screen HD, however, brings tears. The Wagner soundtrack in the last two-thirds of the movie helps, too.

Gorillas are arresting animals.

Posted by mjsimek 05:43 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Tagged congo kivu gorillas sud drc bukavu rdc kahuzi-biega Comments (0)

Bukavu, Gorillas, and the First Congo War (part one)

That machete is a little too close to my face..

View les deux Congos on mjsimek's travel map.

Squint your eyes and you are in Italy or one of many Mediterranean hotspots. Indeed, before modern-day DRC, before Zaïre, the Bukavu of the Belgian Congo, along with Goma, was a honeymoon and vacation destination for people throughout southern Africa. The stunning location of Bukavu on the southern shores of Lake Kivu is a benediction to its residents. But roaming the streets of Bukavu are the wraiths of decades of war, assassinations, and invasions by troops and refugees. Bukavu, as is the case with much of Congo, is a place where the often jaundiced eyes of the Congolese surrounding you have seen what you pray you never will.

I stayed at l'Hôtel Résidence, a name that I was certain that I had heard before. I had not been wrong. It was the hotel's grand balconies which lead me to search back through the pages of one of the books I had read in preparation for my trip, entitled Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. The following excerpt describes an incident at the hotel during the beginning of the First Congo War, an incident involving a man named Lieutenant Colonel Prosper Nabyolwa, the commander of operations in Bukavu for Mobutu Sésé Seko's army:

Nabyolwa was in downtown Bukavu when the rebels finally reached town, entering across the Rwandan border and from the south at the same time. He raced in his pickup to Hotel Residence, a large monolith on the main strip where the army high command had rented apartments. His commanding officer had barricaded himself there, swearing that he would not abandon his position. Nabyolwa rushed into his room, urging him to order a tactical retreat. His commander refused, saying that they would still be able to hold the town. Exasperated, Nabyolwa took him out to the balcony, from where they could see Rwandan troops swarming into town. As they stood on the balcony, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the wall just meters away from them, knocking them both to the ground. Convinced, the general informed his staff to prepare a hasty withdrawal to a suburb on a hill adjacent to Bukavu, from where they would be able to prepare a counterattack.

My hotel room walls had filled-in blotches which did not resemble watermarks. Drunken soldiers from 1996 playing with their guns?

The city is well beyond capacity and has few visitors from abroad today, besides Rwandans and Burundians. The occasionally lit grocery stores contain random goods which can easily be smuggled across the border without paying ridiculous bribes. Most inhabitants seem to do their purchasing from the streets in any case, from people who descend upon the town daily from the surrounding hills to sell what they have grown or found. According to General Nabyolwa, Mobutu once proclaimed in a speech to a dejected and hungry Zaïrian army troop: "You have guns; you don't need a salary." The psychological remnants of this statement, a proclamation with its roots in a nonexistent "Article 15" quoted by Mobutu from an invalid Zaïrian constitution, can be appreciated by the traveler in the warnings s/he is given concerning which parts of town to avoid. Displays of any wealth are of course discouraged everywhere while amongst people who never have enough money to survive healthily (although, bless these people, they look but they do not take... usually), but it is the warnings against going near police stations or places where soldiers gather that are peculiarly Zaïrois. The police and military too often receive little to no pay, so you become their means of survival. It matters little to them if they must arrest you to get what they want. Of course, the "foreigner shakedown" is best avoided by always being with a local, which I was, but it is something which the locals have to deal with as well. Anyone with a business, a productive field, or anything that the police and soldiers want, is fair game. This is more than legend and lore, but I was lucky to only experience this at certain checkpoints along the road while being driven outside of the city. Most bribes are expected and folded in palm in advance, barely necessitating a stop.

So why visit Bukavu? The city itself is beautiful, the surrounding hills are as bucolic as one can find, and the nearby national park of Kahuzi-Biéga is home to the only remaining wild population of eastern lowland gorillas. It is also home to numerous coltan mines (if you are not sure how you have anything to do with the problems in this part of the world, take a closer look at the device you are reading this blog on). The wealth contained in these mines keeps parts of this park unvisitable. It is possible, however, to visit some of the gorilla families within the park, and it is highly recommended!

Part two coming soon...

Posted by mjsimek 01:24 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

Formula One in a Toyota (part two)

Don't hit the chimps

View les deux Congos on mjsimek's travel map.

Rwanda’s poetical name, “The Land of a Thousand Hills”, is deserved and understated. The country consists of hills and nothing but hills. This is a very fertile region of Africa, and each hill displays its own evocative medley of the local vegetation. Human cultivation mixes with an overgrowth of natural greenery. Add to that rustic houses and people who express their love of color, literal and figurative, through their clothing and their ever-present smiles, and a drive through Rwanda is a road trip to remember.

What does not mix well with an experience of Rwandan bucolic appreciation is Emmanuel’s driving. In his defense, Emmanuel needed to drive quickly due to our late departure from Kigali and the timing of the Rusizi border post closure between Cyangugu and Bukavu. I forget Emmanuel’s last name, but it is not Ecclestone. However, in true Formula One form, he threw caution and physics to the wind and tore through the half of the country that is downhill, roadside orphans and goats be damned. The uphill half gave all of us time to reassure ourselves that we were still on the preferred side of life’s veil and to enjoy the individual colors of the countryside without the melted crayon effect caused by traveling at shuttle speed.

A few hours into the ride, the road began to undulate more and the blue-green leaves of eucalyptus began dotting the hills. In isolation, eucalyptus is pleasant enough, but mixed with the fortunate mélange of colors that there had been until that time, the hills went from Monet dreamscape to Moesha’s elementary school Mother’s Day art project. Then, literally around a single corner, the hills in the near distance were covered with rainforest canopy. It was here that we entered Nyungwe National Park and where I experienced the worst intentionally executed torture of my life. Nyungwe National Park is nothing but curves in the road. Upon entering the park, I was told to look out for baboons and chimpanzees, as the park is famous for them. We saw baboons but no chimps, which is quite fortunate as Emmanuel likely would have cheerily bitch-slapped them with his fender had they been in the road. We were going between 60-100 kilometers per hour the whole time, around constant curves! Of course I was getting sick, but my stomach was also “acting up”, which for me means irritating my vagus nerve and giving me arrhythmias and sensations of panic. I was groaning in the back seat and I was literally dizzy when I opened my eyes, something that I had previously only experienced on roller coasters. After I had had too much, I asked my guide, Jacques, how much longer we had in these condition. He replied, “About one and a half hours.” Disappointment Despair set in.

I made it through without chewing cud and we reached the Rusizi border after nightfall. This is where I got an introduction to the unwarranted deference that must be given to the unpaid and unhappy Congolese troops. After stamping out of Rwanda, we had to walk to the Congolese side over an unlit wooden bridge with a track in the middle for cars and tracks on either side for pedestrians. Mind you, this is the Congolese border after dark. Zero car traffic and not exactly pedestrian-packed. We were alone except for two Congolese soldiers seated in white plastic chairs on either side of the bridge, flashlights in hand ... turned off. As we approached and headed towards the middle of the bridge, the first officer flicks on his flashlight and strongly suggests that we walk on the sides. My guide and new driver nodded their heads obsequiously and in fact thanked him for informing us! The same occurred at the other side, although we were not even trying to cross in the middle. I have no idea why we were warned at all because this was a prime bribe opportunity. In DRC, a white person walking alone will surely be asked for money or food by the locals, but not forcefully. However, everyone in DRC must fear the police and the military. In Bukavu on my first day, when I was given advice for where I should and should not go, the places to avoid were all locations of police departments and troop hangouts.

I was tired and my stomach literally hurt so much that it was hard, so I did not even blink after glancing at my DRC passport stamp and seeing that they had given me an exit stamp instead of an entry stamp. We changed it the next day, but I still expect troubles leaving Kinshasa.

Posted by mjsimek 09:26 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Tagged landscapes mountains bridges travel africa republic congo rwanda drc bukavu Comments (0)

Formula One in a Toyota (part one)

Don't hit the chimps...

sunny 21 °C
View les deux Congos on mjsimek's travel map.

Breakfast in Ethiopia, lunch in Rwanda, and dinner in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Beat that, Dr. Livingstone!

The flight from Addis to Kigali was gorgeous and uneventful. Green gave way to sand quite suddenly as we entered Kenyan airspace over Lake Turkana. There was a small island in the middle of the lake with a few small lakes on it itself. Some were blue, one was green. Everything else was stark desert. Gorgeous.

But what's an African bienvenue without something going wrong? In true African travel tradition, what counts at the end of the day is that you get from A to B. You may go to C and F before making it to B, but that's to be expected, what with the comparatively low literacy rate... ;-)

For things to go to plan here, you must cash in good deeds done in past lives. My such account being empty and likely overdrawn, my guide, Jacques, was not waiting for me in the arrivals hall. That left me standing there as taxi driver bait. Not my first time at that game, but I learned a new trick this time. When a taxi driver approaches you, just ask "Are you Jacques?" and it disappoints them immediately. Rwandans, however, are very mild mannered people, a quality which I appreciate immensely in people, so this was the first time in all of my travels that I enjoyed being pestered by taxi drivers. They were genuinely kind, none of this "My friend..." stuff before the sales spiel.

Enter Emmanuel, with a sign labeled GoKongo in hand (GoCongo, with a C, is my travel arranger, but I so much prefer the usage of the K over the C that my heart literally jumped; I just get all linguistic like that at times). I learn after we get to the car that he is Emmanuel, not Jacques, and that Jacques is still on his way from Goma with the 4x4. Il nous fallait l'attendre. This was a fantastic twist, as it meant I got to see some of Kigali during the wait for Jacques. We went to a restaurant in a "mall" that overlooked (or rather underlooked due to its relative location) l'Hôtel des Mille Collines, now aka Hotel Rwanda, made famous for its part in the protection of a thousand refugees during the 1994 Rwandan Massacre. Over lunch in a New Orleans-themed restaurant named Bourbon, I got to learn that Emmanuel was actually the guy with whom I had originally booked this segment of the trip months ago, before choosing to go entirely with GoCongo and never contacting him again (oopsy... but in my defense, he never contacted me again, either). I also got to learn about his life, his wife, and his move to Kigali in 1994, after which the story skips many years to avoid discussing the killings.

I also got to learn that Emmanuel likes big butts. REALLY big ones. Africa may be comprised of 54 countries and thousands of languages, but just as it is said that the only thing Christians and Muslims in Nigeria can agree on is their hatred for gays, it can also be said that there is one thing on which all African women can agree: Liberté, Égalité, Ass. Anyway, he was telling me some story about his life when a woman came in with an arrière that undoubtedly required a C-section to give birth to. She must have been smuggling conflict diamonds in there or something, I have no idea, but that sh*t was ubiquitous. She finally sat down (Ô la chaise! La pauvre chaise!), behind Emmanuel, and a good thing it was, because as meek and as pure of mind as Emmanuel certainly is, my trip was over until she was out of sight.

We then drove through (Beautiful! Clean! SoCal, but with natural greenery!) Kigali to a gas station to meet Jacques. We pull in and see Jacques standing next to a hoisted up 4x4 under repair. Uh-oh. So, I leave the car to greet Jacques, and then I get back in the Toyota that Emmanuel had been driving me in (an antediluvian Corolla with a brainsick digital clock in the dashboard that counted from 17:00 to 17:59 every second like a shortened Groundhog Day gone dadaistic). We took that car instead. In Rwanda, I soon found out, you do not need a 4x4 if you stay on the main roads. The roads seemed quasi-Autobahn quality all the way to Cyangugu, the border town with DRC. Jacques is a great driver. In fact, he is a little too good...

Posted by mjsimek 22:53 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Tagged travel of africa republic congo drc democratic Comments (0)

Top Ten List

Things I Hope I Don't Hear or Say During My Trip

sunny 33 °C

10) "Don't worry, no problem! The bullet only blew out our tyre and we have a spare in the boot!"

9) Me: "Is that a paw in my curry?" Guide (offended): "Of course not! Rattlesnakes don't have paws!"

8) "So THAT'S what Bosco Ntaganda looks like!"

7) "The last time that happened, all hell broke loose."

6) The sound of explosive decompression while flying CAA.

5) The sound of explosive decompression while flying Trans Air Congo.

4) The sound of explosives in my hotel room.

3) "Your yellow fever vaccination card is only in English and Chinese. I don't speak either. USD$100 and I will perhaps begin to understand a little Chinese."

2) "I'm sorry, sir. We're out of drinking water. Come back in two weeks."

And the number one thing I hope I don't hear or say......

1) "Sh*t, RUN!"

Posted by mjsimek 19:31 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

Night before

overcast 29 °C

None of the regular pre-trip jitters or excitement. In fact, I came home from work and spent my evening re-rearranging my apartment to make it more comfortable for the time my ex will be here watching my dog, Dexter.

Off to sleep with a slight beer buzz and an encroaching awareness that this is my last night with my doggie for a few weeks. Always a doleful state. Hence the beer.

Posted by mjsimek 10:02 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

War-Torn Shangri-La

overcast 30 °C

It has recently been brought to my attention that there is a certain "What the f*ck?" factor to my travel destination choices. I don't know who decided this, but apparently, it is de rigueur to travel to places "people" have heard of before. Pfffft.

That's not travel. That's hols with friends.

In my world (the one destination that should not be on your travel list ... scary place), the following is axiomatic:

Phoenix-cum-Aswan-cum-Dubai-cum-Mandalay? Duh.

Piton de la Fournaise, Stellenbosch, Chimanimani? Who hasn't?

Manama, Muscat, Jaisalmer? Ugh, again?

So, as my fellow teachers around the world head off to Provence (yawn), Thailand ("That would be a great ping pong serve, Miss, but with what would you hit it back?"), and Bali (taxis, terror, and jails), I decided on a more obvious choice: Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa, with a quick Kigali to Cyangugu junket thrown in for shits, giggles, and necessity.

I will keep up my postings as frequently as I can. I'm heading to Bukavu and Goma first. Goma is currently being surrounded by 19,000 UN Peacekeepers to halt the M23 rebel advance. The UN presence does not bother me; I quite like their cute little cyan-colored helmets.

Posted by mjsimek 17:38 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 8 of 8) Page [1]