Monday, March 16, 2015

Inside The Heart of Darkness (part 6)

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
 of 'Inside The Heart of Darkness'
The next morning we were determined to catch the first mini-bus to Goma, a city sitting on Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes and one of three exploding lakes in the world. Once we were in Goma, along the Rwandan border, we knew we’d be out of harm’s way.

Or would we?

We got to the mini-bus station in Butembo at 7:30 and were among the first passengers to arrive. We made a major mistake not sitting in the first row alongside the driver. The mini-bus was an outdated Japanese model with five rows and fifteen seats total. David and I sat in one of the passenger rows and, as it quickly filled up, realized just how uncomfortable this was going to be.

The mini-bus driver wouldn’t leave until there were five people sitting in each row, which was built to hold three. Each person was forced to sit completely perpendicular to the row directly in front of him.

The trip was excruciatingly painful, even more than the ride to Butembo. I had no choice but to stand up and align my back with the mini-bus’ ceiling for long stretches of time.

“Congo people treat each other like cattle,” an obese elderly woman on the other side of our row said to us in English. “No one cares about life or death in this country or how anybody feels.”

“It’s good we’re leaving,” David said to me with a nod.

We stopped at various towns where the driver would chat with his buddies or leave to buy groceries, but wouldn’t let anyone out for a short break. He even locked the door so no one had a chance to get out. All the passengers passively stayed inside, too uncomfortable to complain.

We were, however, able to open up the windows, but when we did, local peddlers would stuff in whatever goods they could, literally in our face. At one point, I thought the elderly Congolese woman sitting in our row was going to suffocate from all the bundles of onion grass being pushed up in her face.

Military checkpoints were the one place our driver never stopped. Each time we arrived at a checkpoint, he accelerated to blaze past the soldiers on duty. The soldiers manning the posts would try to run after us. The driver would throw a fistful of francs out the window, and they’d cease their chase and wave at our fleeing vehicle to say thanks.

Eight hours later at Goma, my legs and back were so stiff I could initially only walk at half my normal pace. This made us easy prey for a tout to walk alongside us and bring us to a hotel of his choosing. The tout was a short, friendly character who looked like he had some Pygmy background in him. He told us he dreamed of becoming a doctor one day and that escorting folks like us was just a way for him to make some cash on the side.

He took us to a hotel in a somewhat seedy-looking part of town that had a bar and brothel attached. We were escorted to our room by a two hundred pound Congolese prostitute with partially dyed blonde hair, atrocious makeup, and a nice amount of facial hair sprouting from her chin. She tried to rub my back with her hand to gauge my sexual interest in her, but her touch startled me to such a degree that I jumped back in fear.

The room itself was small with only one bed for David and me to share. There was a strong stench of body odor too. But it had a sink with running water, a working light bulb, and a place on the door knob to put our own lock. We were only going to be staying that night and the following night, since our plan from the start was to cross into Rwanda on April 11, my mother’s birthday.

Goma was the epicenter of the refugee crisis stemming from the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and was a central battleground during the first and second Congo wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s. To add insult to injury, in 2002 Goma was in the direct path of volcanic eruption of Mount Nyiragongo's eruption.  The lava stream measured two hundred to a thousand meters wide. The lava destroyed more than forty percent of the city and more than a hundred people were killed by asphyxiation from the massive release of carbon dioxide.

The aftermath of Niyragongo's eruption in 2002. The city of Goma was completely leveled.

There were no paved roads in Goma. All vehicles travel over carefully placed gravel to reach their destinations. Thousands of inhabitants wandered the streets aimlessly, trying to pick up any type of odd job that would net them a few thousand francs. But due to all the recent chaos, many of the buildings there are fairly new, giving the city a cheerful appeal.

Compared to where we’d been, Goma was an exciting boom-town brimming with opportunity and potential. We marveled at the array of goods on display in the grocery stores and the variety of restaurants. That we were able to eat at Indian food made us feel like we’d emerged from the wilderness for good.

There were white people too! Hundreds of them, mostly foreign transplants temporarily living in Goma working in professions geared towards turning chaos into order. We made it, we told ourselves. We casually approached foreigners on the streets, in the markets, at restaurants, and asked them what they were doing in the DRC. We heard the same story over and over about working for some NGO or the UN.

“What are you doing here?” they’d ask us in response.

“Oh you know, we’re just traveling,” we’d answer, to which we’d receive a number of responses.

“You’re what?!”

“Traveling?! Is that even possible in Congo?”

“In three years of living here, you’re the second and third travelers I’ve seen. The only other one was a crazy Japanese guy.”

Listening to their stories of leaving Goma via plane or armored convoy only increased the degree of awesomeness we felt.

On our last night in Congo our stories of adventure managed to get us invited to a house party at a mansion on the banks of Lake Kivu. The soiree was hosted by an American woman serving as the director of an NGO focused on child welfare. There, David and I feasted on delicious hors d’oeuvres and drank nice glasses of wine. For the first time in ten days, we enjoyed pleasant and intellectually stimulating conversation with people other than ourselves.

At the end of the night, the hostess recommended we wait around the neighborhood for motorcycle taxi drivers to pick us up and take us back to our hotel, less than a kilometer away. David and I thanked her for the suggestion, but we had other plans for getting home.

We were ready to leave for Rwanda early the next morning, so this would conceivably be our last experience in Congo. We chose to stroll back to our hotel taking in the city’s scenery and nightlife and marvel at what we’d done on our trip. The path was fairly well-lit and patrolled by police officers every few blocks, so we figured we’d be safe.

It was mostly quiet and peaceful as we walked, except for the distant thumping of music from a few nearby bars and nightclubs.

When we turned off the main road on to the dark side street where our hotel was, a gang of five young Congolese, three men and two women, approached us. Their leader, a muscular aggressive man who could have been any age, offered David and me a fist bump and greeting.

Ca va? Tres bien?” he asked as we politely pounded his fists. How are you? Everything is good? “Ja bra! Rastafari! Rastafari!”

In East Africa, a lot of criminals will try to gain their prey’s trust by saying they are Rastafarians, a religion that theoretically espouses a philosophy of peace and brotherly love. Every time someone bragged he was a Rastafarian, my stomach tightened up. 

The gang leader continued to babble something incomprehensible in French, while the rest of his gang stood by silently. When he stopped talking, he unexpectedly swung his hand in the direction of my front right pocket, apparently trying to reach for my wallet.

I pushed his hand away and stepped back further into the darkness. David did the opposite, backing up onto the well-lit main road. My predator screamed with frustration.

Before I could even think or just move out of the way, he picked up a massive rock lying that measured almost a meter in length came up to me fast, then threw it just high enough for it to land directly on top of me.

I was lucky I managed to deflect the rock with my left arm and watch it fall back to the ground.
If the rock had landed on my head I would have been dead. If he had thrown it at my foot, it would have caused serious damage and my stay in Africa would have been finished.

Sadly, what it did do was dislocate my shoulder. Dislocations are agonizing. I was unable to stand up straight or move my arm in any direction. I was totally incapacitated and vulnerable. Scared and completely unable to defend myself, I lay on my back on the ground and protected my injured shoulder and arm as best I could.

One of the other men in the gang, clearly nervous that his leader had severely injured someone, went through my front pockets trying to steal everything I had. Once he was satisfied he’d cleaned me out for good, he and the others ran away.

David found me lying on the ground and helped me up. I went through my pockets and saw those assholes didn’t even find my money because I’d been lying on top of it while trying to protect myself. The only thing the gang made off with was my head flashlight and a broken mobile phone that had been given to me by a Lebanese businessman we’d met earlier. Ironically, if my attacker had simply asked me for money, I would have given it to him. I wasn’t walking around at night in the Congo with my passport or lots of cash and credit cards. I had the equivalent six dollars tucked away in my back pocket.

David was scratched up as well. While my pockets were being checked, the two women in the group had thrown rocks at him too, though much smaller ones. Most of their rocks missed him, but he did get pelted a few times in his thighs and waist.

We saw three motorcycle taxi drivers parked a twenty meters away watching us. They saw the whole thing and hadn't to lift a finger to help us.

I was in agonizing pain, but I managed to remain fairly calm. We got to our hotel and went to our room wondering what to do: Should we immediately get our things and somehow try to get to a hospital in Rwanda or go to the nearest medical clinic in Goma?

With every passing second, I was in danger of suffering long-term shoulder damage. David grabbed all the cash we had left, no more than seventy dollars in total, and hailed the motorcycle drivers to take us to the nearest hospital.

Hôpital! Hôpital!” he shouted, stirring two of the drivers to action.

David helped me sit up on the backseat of one of the motorcycles as I cradled my useless left arm. He hopped on the back of the other and we were driven a few bouncy kilometers over gravel roads to a medical clinic. When we got off the motorcycles, David offered the drivers a sum they believed was too little. Disgusted by them for not helping us before and for being petty now, David took out another five hundred franc bill, spat in it, and threw it at the ground before escorting me inside the building. 

We sat in the waiting room with three other people in much worse shape than me. They also looked like they’d been attacked by rocks. Unlike me, they were bleeding from head wounds and fading in and out of consciousness. A male doctor came to speak to us and told us that they would only begin giving me medical treatment if we paid a sum of four hundred dollars in cash. David dumped out the remaining seventy dollars we had in Congolese francs, pulled his pockets inside out, and conveyed that that was literally all the money we had left. The doctor relented.

First, a female nurse cut off my black long-sleeve short and took an X-ray of my shoulder. The X-ray confirmed I did not have a break or a fracture, just a complete dislocation. Next, I was brought into another room with a mattress on the floor and another female nurse preparing an IV. The doctor entered the room and put on surgical gloves. They were planning to make me unconscious before putting my shoulder back into place.

That was when I really got scared. I was terrified of having a dirty needle stuck in my arm in the Congo. God knew if their equipment was sanitary. I tried to show them with my limited French and hand signals that I preferred if they just sat me in a chair and forcefully put my shoulder together without any anesthetic. I knew it would hurt like hell, but the pain would be temporary.

Regrettably, the two nurses and medic refused to do things the way I wished and prodded me to lie down on the mattress on my right side. I acquiesced as one of the nurses stuck an IV in my hand. David sat in a chair facing me so that I wouldn’t feel alone.

As I felt the anesthetic flow, I realized I had no idea what I was being injected with. I didn’t know if it was the right chemical or the appropriate dosage. I estimated there was a fifty-fifty chance whatever it was would cause my heart to stop and I’d be dead on the spot.

I began talking to God. Prayer isn’t an accurate way to describe what I was doing because I felt compelled to apologize more than request to be saved. I apologized for my arrogance and stupidity at thinking I could make it through one of the most dangerous places on Earth without harm. I apologized for the pain that my death would cause my family and friends, on my mother’s birthday no less.

“I am sorry for being such a selfish asshole,” I repeated out loud, wondering if I would ever wake up again.

“The last words you actually said were, ‘He threw a rock at me,’” David said with a smirk when I opened my eyes forty minutes later.

I glanced down at myself and saw that my arm was safely back in place and taped up in a sling.
“I watched the whole thing,” David continued. “I think they fixed you up pretty professionally. You can’t take off that sling for a few hours though.”

That meant I wouldn’t be able to wear a t-shirt properly for the rest of the day. No worries, I told myself. That was the least of my troubles.

David and I returned to our hotel and tried to sleep for a couple hours. It was impossible. My shoulder was sore, but that wasn’t the reason. I couldn’t sleep because I was filled with so much pent up rage over what had just happened. No matter what I did I couldn’t fall asleep. After two hours, I woke David up and told him I had to leave the DRC as soon as possible.

David carried one of my backpacks for me as we made our way by foot to the border crossing.  While we passed through border control, two English-speaking Congolese policemen asked what happened to me. After telling them about the attack, they said they were surprised no policeman was there to stop it.

“Nothing else works in your country,” I said bitterly. “Why should the police force?”

I took my passport back after getting my glorious exit stamp, gazed out at the Rwandan countryside, and never looked back at Congo again.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Inside The Heart of Darkness (part 5)

Part Three
Part Four
 of 'Inside The Heart of Darkness'

A hundred steps from the police station was a gold Toyota Camry sedan with its four doors and trunk wide open. Its driver, a big burly man wearing a plaid button-down shirt leaned on the hood staring at the screen of his low-end cell phone. A man sitting in the front passenger’s seat whistled to get his attention when we walked by. The driver abruptly put his cell phone down and ran up to us asking, “Butembo? Butembo?”

Amazed that we’d found a ride out of the city right before dark, we readily agreed to pay fifteen dollars for each of us for the four-hour journey, a large amount of money considering the relatively short distance. We put our backpacks in the trunk and comfortably seated ourselves in the backseat of the Camry.

Under no other circumstances would we have been so excited to get to a city like Butembo, which is known as the rape capital of the world because of the tremendous abuse against women that occurred there during the Congo wars.

Nous allons?” David asked the driver. Are we going?

The driver shook his head.

Plus de gens,” the driver said. More people.

Technically speaking, there was room for one more person in the backseat with us; perhaps two if we really squeezed in tightly.

Five minutes later we got our fourth and fifth fellow travelers, two men traveling with what looked like a couple hundred kilograms of unripe bananas. As they loaded their produce into the trunk, David told me he hoped his digital camera would be okay.

With a cramped car of six passengers, we thought we were ready to go. Yet we still remained parked in Kamanda.

“How many people can you possibly fit into a five seat Camry?” I asked David.

The answer is nine. Nine full-grown adult passengers inside a mid-size Japanese sedan, three in front and six in back.

The journey was painful, physically and psychologically. I found myself sitting next to the left-side back seat window with my shoulder furiously scrunched up and a woman who smelled like death sitting on my knee with her unwashed back and shirt brushing my face. A large man a few persons down on the right extended his hand and arm so that it reached around my neck.

David’s seating arrangement wasn’t much more comfortable. He had the advantage of being smaller so he got to sit on top of some of the backseat passengers leaning forward into the front seat.
The power windows didn’t go down all the way, so I spent the ride trying to stick my face up to the narrow window opening to gasp for fresh air.

“I need to eat, Michael,” David stammered to me at one point during the ride. “My body is fading. I’m not sleepy, but it’s hard for me to stay awake. I can’t concentrate on anything.”

It was pitch black when we arrived in Butembo. The Camry parked in an area with only one streetlight flickering in the distance and a lone policeman patrolling the street. We got out of the Camry very slowly. Our bodies felt like they were twisted into pretzels during the journey and we were nervous about pulling a muscle. We waited for the hundreds of kilograms of bananas to be taken out of trunk so we could get our bags. David muttered over and over how badly he needed to eat.

We grabbed our bags as soon as we could and handed the driver the franc equivalent of fifteen dollars each and began walking away. Standing next to the driver was his friend, another large, husky man, who had apparently met the car where it parked.

When the driver finished counting the money, he and his friend rushed up to us and grabbed us by our backpacks.

Vingt cinq!” he barked at us. Twenty-five!

 Non! Quinze! Quinze!” I shouted back at him.

Vingt cinq!

I couldn’t believe it. We had agreed on a price before we left Butembo and now he was changing it.
“Michael, I’ve got to get out of here,” David pleaded. “I’m about to collapse.”

The driver’s friend standing next to him then abruptly intervened.

“Boys, the cost of the journey is twenty-five dollars,” he said sternly. “Now pay your driver right now!”

“The cost of the journey is fifteen dollars,” I yelled back. “The driver is a liar!”

“Give him twenty dollars more for the two of you because that was the price!”

“I said we already paid! Your driver friend agreed with us that the price was ‘quinze dollars.’ You’re the French speaker. You tell me what that means!”

“Listen to me white boy! You don’t come to my country and tell me what my friend said. I tell you what you have to pay and you pay it!”

The police officer patrolling the block saw the commotion and ran over to get involved.

“Your friend’s a liar and you’re a fucking asshole! Go fuck yourself!”

And just like that, without thinking through what exactly it was we were about to do, I grabbed David’s arm and told him to run as fast as he could. We ran on pure adrenaline wearing our heavy backpacks and just prayed those two men wouldn’t catch up with us. If they’d caught us, who knows what kind of trouble we would have found ourselves in? I’m not entirely sure, but I think the Congolese police officer who ran over to intervene ordered the men not to chase us down.
We must have only run a few hundred meters before our bodies gave out. 

Thankfully, only another ten meters away was a convenience store stocked with food. The manager, a tall thin man in his twenties, readily let us inside and led us straight for the preservatives section, where we found mini-hot dogs, corn, carrots, bread and potato chips. We basically forced our money into the manager’s hand and sat down on the floor of his shop stuffing our faces. It was one of the best meals of my life.

It must have been quite a shock for the manager to meet two starving, forlorn white men covered in filth who smelled like God knows what. Presumably the only white people he'd ever seen before were UN or NGO workers traveling around in fancy sport utility vehicles with armed body guards securing them from harm. Once we finished eating, we asked him to help us find a hotel where we could spend the night.

He called up a friend of his who had a guesthouse down the street and explained to us how to get there. When we arrived, his friend took us to a room that lacked running water and electricity, and said it would cost us ten dollars a night. Without hesitating, we said we’d take it.

We slept blissfully for ten solid hours. When we woke up, however, the stress of our present situation struck us immediately.

“Fucking hell! Are you serious?!” David screamed to no one in particular. “Michael, the lens on my camera is completely broken! My camera is fucked! It was crushed by the two hundred kilograms of bananas that were on top of our bags! I hate this country!”

David bought his digital camera just three weeks earlier in Kampala. Considering that our previous night’s driver had tried to take extra money from us after the least comfortable car ride of our lives, the destruction of David’s camera only made us more upset. After buying some bananas and bread from the same store from the night before, we spent the next few hours hunting for a camera repair shop, but nothing we found was able to salvage it.

Just to give you an idea of where Butembo is located. David's camera had been crushed by 200 kilograms of bananas, so we were not able to take more photos for the rest of our time in the Congo.

Resentful and once again very hungry, we sat down at a food hut staffed by women. The place served rice, beans, and mystery meat. We ordered what they had along with two nice cold Fanta soft drinks.
The food was edible, but by no means a delicious treat. 

Before we dug in, one of the female employees told us the meal would cost a total of 4,100 francs, or around $4.50. After we finished eating, I went up to the woman and handed her 4,500 francs, expecting to get four hundred francs back in change. She took the money and waved her hand at me as if to tell me that the transaction was complete.

I stayed where I stood and asked for my four hundred francs. She and the other women working with her laughed out loud at my request and shooed me away with their hands. I understood that four hundred francs was an extremely insignificant amount of money, less than fifty cents, but I was not in the mood to let something like that pass.

I slammed my hands on the counter and asked one more time for my money back. The woman I’d been dealing with glared at me and uttered a bitter, “Non.”

Fine, I told myself. They want to keep my four hundred francs. Great. I’ll help myself to two more Fanta drinks from the refrigerator they left unlocked in the main sitting area. I grabbed the two drinks, approached the women one last time, and smiled.

Quatre cents francs s'il vous plait!” I said tauntingly. Four hundred francs please.

They shook their heads from side to side and demanded I hand them over the drinks. The value of the two Fantas, especially the glass bottles themselves, was much more than a measly four hundred francs. When someone finishes a drink from a glass bottle in many parts of the developing world, the seller will almost always ask for the bottle back to make money from the recycling. 

I returned to where David was sitting and explained that I had a point I needed to make. David followed me as I walked outside the food hut. I saw that the women working there were coming outside as well. I was ready to return the two bottles as soon as I had my four hundred francs. But instead of offering me the money, the women picked up big rocks from the ground and threatened to hurl them at us.

People walking around outside stopped to watch the unfolding situation. This actually wasn’t the first time women had threatened David and me with rocks. We were nearly attacked in Kampala by a pack of Ugandan prostitutes angry at us for refusing their services.

As I stared at the women’s faces as they prepared to stone us, all I felt inside me was contempt and hatred for them and their country. I completely lost my mind.

I let out a scream and smashed the two Fanta bottles together. Glass and soda went flying in all directions. The women immediately jumped back a step. Now carrying two broken glass bottles and covered with shards of glass and fizzy liquid, I walked towards the women feeling so much rage I was ready to kill. All over fifty cents.

The food hut women were just as startled as I was. Realizing just how insane I might actually be, they dropped their rocks and raced back inside their establishment. The other people around us backed up utterly convinced I was a dangerous mad man. At that moment, I definitely was.

The rest of the day brought us some better times. While hiking through the dusty villages immediately outside Butembo’s city limits, we were followed for hours by a pack of roughly fifty elementary school-age children who acted as if we were celebrities. They may have spent most of their time with us begging for biscuits and bon-bons, but the humor and authentic friendliness gave us some much-needed good feeling.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Inside The Heart of Darkness (part 4)

Part Three
 of 'Inside The Heart of Darkness'

We woke up early the next morning, took our bags, and walked back to the military post where we were hassled for bribes a couple nights before. One of the soldiers who had watched in awe as we pitched our tent was back on duty at his post. We approached him and asked in French when the next bus was to Beni or Butembo, a city of 200,000 fifty kilometers south of Beni.

Une semaine,” he answered without expression. One week.

Impossible,” we said in response. “Sept jours non bus?” Seven days no bus?

The soldier nodded his head. We walked around for about fifteen minutes asking locals and other soldiers the same question. Unfortunately, each time we got the same answer. There was no way we were staying in Epulu for a whole week. Then we would be in danger of overstaying our transit visas and would run into real trouble with the military. We had no choice.

“We have to hitchhike,” David said.

We put down our bags on the side of the road and pointed our fingers towards the ground to signal to passing truck drivers that we wished to travel with them. Once again, the soldiers couldn’t believe their eyes. White men hitchhiking with Congolese truck drivers? A Congolese soldier standing about six foot six and a four and a half foot tall Pygmy man stood side-by-side staring at us, as if we were the spectacle.

The Congolese soldier (standing) and Pygmy man (sitting) looking out for a truck for us to hitchhike with out of Epulu. 

We waited roughly twenty minutes for a truck to stop. When it did, the driver said he was traveling to Kisengani. East was in the opposite direction, he informed us.

“Shit!” I yelled out.

We’d just wasted twenty minutes hailing trucks traveling in the wrong direction. We crossed the road and started over.

Another twenty minutes passed by and a truck stopped. We told him where we wanted to go and he said he’d take us to Komanda, a town about half way, for one hundred dollars each. We resoundingly said no. Then he tried for eighty. We still said no. Then he drove off. While we waited for another truck to stop, I wondered if we should have just taken his offer and forked over the cash.

Luckily another truck with three men inside stopped less than five minutes later. We asked them where they were headed and they also said Komanda. Before they could name a price, we offered them twenty dollars a person, an unheard of sum for transportation in other parts of East Africa. The men bargained with us a little and eventually we settled for thirty. Just so we didn’t have any problems later, we made sure we got the franc/dollar exchange rate settled up front.

The ride was long and uncomfortable, but thankfully uneventful. We sat behind the two main passenger seats on top of our bags and leaned against the wall. Our companions didn’t try talking to us much. They just played a cassette of ten Congolese pop songs over and over for the duration of our six-hour journey. Thankfully, the truck’s tires held up. It’s amazing how much less time a trip takes when there’s no need to replace flat tires three times.

We arrived in Komanda around two o’clock in the afternoon and were, naturally, hungry. The town’s streets were packed with hundreds of men, presumably with no jobs and nothing useful to do. During the Congo wars, the town's entire population was forced to flee from the different militias and hide out in the forest. These people knew extreme cruelty and instability, and were also fairly good at not being productive.

David went up to a group of men sitting on a street corner and asked if they could recommend a place to eat. One of the men abruptly stood up and shouted in English, “Give me money white man!”

Shocked and frightened, we hurried away. The men stayed where they were, pointing and laughing loudly. This caused a lot of the other men in the area to notice us as well. All of a sudden we heard people running up behind us, smacking our bags, hissing loudly, and shouting to give them money. No one actually attacked us, but we knew someone could at any second.

Five minutes in Komanda was enough time to know it was a place we wanted to get the hell out of. We eventually located a small restaurant on a side street with a real kitchen. We dumped our bags at the nearest table and asked the owner what there was to eat. We were starving and on the brink of willing to pay any price for some food.

The owner just shook his head from side to side with his eyes closed. We knew what that meant. There was no food in his restaurant. Anxious about going back outside and wandering around aimlessly, we remembered glimpses of a marketplace. Refusing to leave his restaurant, we told the man we’d buy the food and pay him money if he cooked up whatever we purchased from the market and brought back. Clearly lacking the energy to refuse us and perhaps a bit hungry himself, he agreed.

I volunteered to go out to the market and leave David with the bags. I left my passports and wallet with him and only took the few thousand francs I needed to get some basics. Thankfully, the marketplace was close and was manned by mostly female peddlers. I quickly scrounged up eggs, tomatoes, an onion, and rice and raced back to the restaurant to find the owner already boiling water.

Twenty minutes later he presented us with his concoction. After one bite we knew something was very, very wrong. The food tasted totally off, as if it was cooked with something rotten or poisonous. Were there pesticides on the vegetables? Were the eggs rotten? Did the restaurant put something funny in our food in an attempt to kill us and rob us? We had no idea. 

We were in shock someone could mess up eggs, rice, tomatoes, and onion so severely. Mad beyond belief and concerned about getting out of town while there was still sunlight, we paid the man for his “service,” bought some bananas at the market, and hustled out of town as fast as we could on the main road.

We slowed our pace when cars and trucks passed us. We waved to them, but none stopped. We were watching local children kick around a deflated soccer ball on the opposite side of the main road when three men on loud motorcycles pulled up and parked ahead of us in the direction we were walking. As they got down from the bikes, David and I quickly took stock of them.

They were wearing torn, faded t-shirts and ripped khaki pants to go with their dusty baseball hats and shabby plastic sandals. They looked like homeless people about to ask for some change. We didn’t know who these men were or what they wanted, but at that moment the only thing David and I cared about was getting out of there on the next truck.

Donnez-moi vos documents!” the man standing in the middle ordered. Show me your documents!

“Why should we show you our documents?” David retorted aggressively back in English. 

David and I were in no mood to speak in French to these guys. If they wanted something from us they were going to have to speak our language.

“The documents, sir!” the man demanded again.

“Why should I give you my documents? Who the hell are you?”

“We are secret police.”

David and I looked our new friends up and down as if to say, “You can’t be serious.” These guys were dressed and smelled like they’d just wandered out of a garbage dump. And they expected us to believe they were law enforcement officials?

“You show me your documents!” David challenged. “If you show me your documents showing you are a policeman, then I will show you my documents showing that I am a tourist.”

A tractor-trailer approached our position. David and I picked up our bags and ran out to the road and tried to flag it down. The trailer began to slow, but one of the three motorcyclists walked out to the road and signaled to the driver to ignore us and continue on his way. Whoever these men were, they were trouble.

“The documents!” the leader of the group shouted more forcefully. “I am secret police!”

“If you’re police, then where’s your identification?!” David shouted. “You show me your identification, then I’ll show you mine! You get it?!”

David, normally the more diplomatic of the two of us, was starting to lose his cool due to hunger and stress. He and I weren’t taking full stock of the situation. It wasn’t smart since we really didn’t have any idea who they were. All we wanted was to get on a truck out of that hellhole and those guys were stopping us from doing just that.

We didn’t think these men were part of a gang or a rebel group trying to kidnap us because they would have done it by then. They also didn’t act like they wanted to rob us, since they hadn’t asked for any money. Whoever they were, they started to attract a small crowd of interested passersby curious to see what our dispute was all about.

The main guy who’d been speaking to us suddenly walked away, hopped on his bike, and sped away leaving his two cronies guard us.

“Fuck!” David screamed at the top of his lungs throwing the smaller of his two backpacks at the ground. “This country fucking sucks!”

The ten or so people standing around watched him silently, probably wondering why this white man was so outraged. David’s anger compelled me to remain calm. I didn’t feel like telling him it was going to be okay or that I was sure there was a reasonable explanation for this because I really had no idea. What I did know was that our situation wasn’t going to get better with the both of us out of control.

I stood silently near David as he fumed. Fifteen minutes later the man from the “secret police” returned. This time, when he got off his bike he went to speak to the two other men and ignored us completely. Five minutes later, two Congolese policemen in full uniform approached us on foot.
“Fuck!” David yelled again. “These homeless assholes are the secret police?! What the fuck is wrong with this place?!”

Our nemesis must have told them we were pretty agitated because the main police officer who came to speak with us in his minimal English was very non-confrontational. He asked to see our passports, which we then readily showed him, and told us all we had to do was go back to the police station for registration.

“But we’re not in your town. We’re trying to leave the town,” I tried to explain calmly. “We’re on our way to Rwanda. We don’t need to register if we’re not planning on being in the town.”

“Just registration,” the police officer repeated calmly. “Very fast I tell you.”

“No!” David yelled again as he once again threw his backpack at the ground. “We need to get out of this town, Michael. This town is bad news! I don’t trust any of these motherfuckers!”

“All we have to do is register and then we’ll be off on our way,” I reasoned. “That’s what the policeman said. Let’s just do this as fast as possible so we’ll get back on our way.”

How naïve I was. Led by the two policemen and trailed by the men on motorcycles, we returned to the center of town to a decrepit dark green building that functioned as the local police headquarters. We were told to sit in a shabby room with chipped paint on the floor and to hand over our passports so that one of the police officers could write down our details.

For more than twenty minutes, David and I watched as the police officer filled out a simple one-page form for each of us. He drew the letters of the alphabet so slowly I became convinced he was basically illiterate.

When he finally finished, I asked for our passports back. The soldier shook his head and sat at his desk silently. A few moments later I made the same demand again. Once again, he shook his head unfazed. I paced around the room frantically as David sat in his seat. Finally, I snapped.

“Give me our fucking passports!” I screamed as I slammed my hands on his desk with fury. “Donnez-moi mon passeport!” Give me my passport!

The police officer looked at me completely clueless, which only added fuel to my fire.

Passeport! Passeport!” I howled at him threateningly. Then I picked up the pen he’d used to fill out the forms and bent it totally out of shape, before sitting back down next to David. The police officer looked at me like I was nuts. And, I was nuts.

“You just broke that guy’s pen!” David said.

“He wouldn’t give me my passport back!” I said in my own defense.

The soldier rose from his chair and sped out of the office. Five minutes later, he returned flanked by a middle-aged man with deep wrinkles wearing civilian clothes and a bright-eyed younger man with a friendly grin carrying another chair. The middle-aged man took the chair, sat down, and gazed at us with stern serious eyes.

“I am chief of police. You are criminal,” he said in broken English. “Your Congo visa is invalide.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand your English,” I said mockingly. “We’ve done your registration. Now it’s time to leave.”

“You are under arrest,” the younger man said in perfectly clear English. We later found out he was an English teacher by profession who was occasionally pulled in to work with the police. “He says your visas are invalid. You have crossed into Orientale Province without proper visas. Your visas are only acceptable for North Kivu Province. This is a serious issue. This makes you criminals. You are now in jail. ”

“No, our visas are for the Democratic Republic of Congo. We can go to whatever province we please. We’re not staying here. We’re on vacation and we’re leaving now.”

“No you will not. You will very shortly undergo interrogation.” 

The two policemen and their translator then quickly left the room and locked us inside. If David and I had been thinking and acting rationally, we would have started to panic. We were under arrest in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. If the policemen decided to shoot us and bury our bodies behind the station, no one would have ever known what happened. But we weren’t thinking rationally. To cope, we each took a book out from our backpacks and silently started to read.
The policemen and the translator returned thirty minutes later and snapped to get our attention. We ignored them, continuing to read.

“What is this?!” the chief of police asked.

"A book. Ever heard of it?" I snarled.

The police chief sat down in front of us flanked by the other two and spoke to us in what we think was French. After every few sentences the translator repeated what he’d said in English. Basically he explained that we had illegal visas, which was a “very grave” offense in Congo. He said we could be jailed for many months for such an offense, possibly even transferred to a prison deep in another province. He asked us how we felt about going to prison for a long time in the Congo.

“We don’t feel any way about it because I’m going to get on the phone with the American embassy in Kinshasa and make sure they send someone to have your testicles ripped off,” I said. “How do you feel about getting your testicles ripped off?”

The police chief’s eyes grew wide when the English translator sheepishly explained what I’d said. The three men left the room to reevaluate the situation and locked us inside once more. When they returned, the police chief asked us where we were trying to go. Goma, we replied, to cross the border into Rwanda. He responded by telling us he could have us put on a bus to the border of Uganda in the east or Angola in the west.

“We are traveling to Goma,” David said firmly. “We have no business going to Uganda or Angola.”
The five of us sat in the room in silence for the next fifteen minutes. Bored and wanting to show our host some more disdain, David and I picked up our books and started reading. When the police chief spoke again, he unleashed an interesting new theory.

Vous êtes CIA!” he declared. “You are CIA!”

We each cracked a smile. We knew our interrogator was starting to break.

“He says you are spies from the CIA,” the translator elaborated. “He says he thinks you are hiding a gun in your bag.”

“Tell him he can check my bag,” I challenged. “We’re not spies. We don’t have guns. We just want to leave.”

The police chief stood up and paced around the room before shouting something in rapid-fire French.
“He says you must be spies because your passports are forged,” the translator explained. “He says your passport says you are fifteen years old!”

Quinze? Quinze?” the police chief yelled out at us as he held up our passports. 

Fifteen?! Fifteen?! He seemed quite confident he’d caught us doing something bad, but David and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Oh my God, he doesn’t know how to do basic math,” David said.

David took out a notebook and demonstrated that 2011, that year, minus 1986, the year David was born, is 25, not 15.

The police chief took the notebook from David and analyzed the equation he’d written out closely. He then showed it to his two associates, who shrugged their arms and appeared to agree with David’s math.

Quinze! Quinze!” he screamed at us again before storming out of the room alone.

 “Just give him some money,” the translator told us somberly. “This is all he wants. He expected you to offer some money a long time ago. Give him some money and you will go on your way.”

By telling us that, he’d just given us all the power in that situation. The police chief didn’t want to keep us locked up in prison for months and months. He just wanted to make some easy cash. Apparently he didn’t expect us to be so damn difficult to deal with.

When the police chief returned he was much more explicit about what he was after. The translator quickly explained that we could end this situation by paying a fine.

“How much of a fine do you think you should have to pay?” the translator asked on his behalf.
“Zero,” David said.

“But the gentleman here broke the police officer’s pen. He must pay for this.”

David reached into his backpack and took out another pen and offered it to the police chief.

“Here is another pen,” he said. “The issue of the broken pen is now resolved. The debt is cleared.”

Our three adversaries looked stressed out, tired, and angry. They sat silently for another few minutes. We returned to reading our books. The police chief eventually raised his hand and signaled we were free to go.

“Départ?” David asked to confirm. Departure?

The police chief handed us back our passports, stood up, and showed us the door. We grabbed our backpacks and left. We’d won the battle.

 “You owe me a pen now you crazy motherfucker,” David said as he put his arm around my shoulder.