Friday, February 13, 2015

Inside The Heart of Darkness (part 3)

Part One and 
Part Two 
 of Inside The Heart of Darkness

The bus to Epulu was at least two decades old with fine red cloth interior and an opening on the roof to let air in. We took our tickets from the skinny old man from the restaurant, got on, and saw that all the male passengers on board had taken their shirts off. The bus engine had not yet been turned on, so the cabin was hot and smelled like sweat. David and I promptly removed our shirts too.

Immediately, all pairs of eyes shot to our hairy chests. This wasn’t the first time Africans were amazed at the body hair we white men grew. A few minutes later I felt a tug on my arm hair. A curious bare-chested boy of about six was stroking the hairs of my arm as if I was some kind of pet. His mother didn’t stop him. Instead, she gave me a puzzled glance as if to ask if it was possible to touch my arm hair as well. I nodded and smiled and together mother and son petted me, their new furry friend.

The driver started up the engine. Our hearts sank when the air conditioning didn’t come on. We tried to pry open the windows to get some fresh air, but they were locked shut. The last person on the bus was a child ticket collector. He yelled in some local language for everyone to take out their tickets in an impressively deep voice. As he walked down the aisle checking tickets, we saw that he also had a thick mustache and some nice facial hair growing on his jaw.

I looked around the bus and started noticing some other children with facial hair as well. Why did everyone in this country have facial hair?

When the ticket collector approached us, I realized he wasn’t a child, just an extremely short man. There was no way he was taller than four foot six.

“Holy shit, dude!” David cackled. “He’s a Pygmy!”

The word Pygmy is a general term for members of an ethnic group whose average height is unusually short. Pygmy adult men are on average less than four feet eleven inches tall. Most Pygmy communities are located in rain forest environments and operate as hunter-gatherer societies. It is estimated there are 250,000-600,000 living in the Congo rain forest. Our bus ride to Epulu also showed that some Pygmies are venturing out of the forest entirely and taking up in employment in sectors beyond subsistence living.

At the end of the Second Congo War in 2003, Pygmies had been hunted down and eaten by militias as if they were animals. Both sides of the war viewed the Pygmies as “subhuman” and many people believed their flesh granted magical power to those who consumed it. The group primarily responsible for the violence and cannibalism of the Pygmies, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, is currently the main opposition party in the Congolese government.

Three flat tires and twelve hours later, the bus stopped in front of Epulu’s major military checkpoint just after three o’clock in the morning. Naturally, when we two hairy white guys came off from the bus, soldiers pulled us aside.

“Registration,” a droopy-eyed soldier said calmly in the quiet dead of night as he led us to a fairly well-preserved cabin a few dozen feet away. We looked around and saw an array of other nice cabins. It felt like we’d arrived at a forest ranger station, not a military posting.

We walked up a flight of steps, entered the cabin, and were met by a tired officer who spoke a bit of broken English. He asked to see our passports. Handing our passports back to us, the officer told us half-heartedly we’d broken the law by entering Orientale Province without a permit.

“We have transit visas and nowhere do the transit visas state that we’re restricted to one Congolese province,” David explained.

It wasn’t clear if the officer understood every word of what David said, but he nevertheless told us we had to pay a fine for our transgression. Worn out from the drive, but still not wanting to pay a corrupt officer a bribe, we played dumb and pretended we didn’t understand what he said.

This frustrated him badly, so he switched tactics and tried to usher us into one of Epulu’s fine hotels.

“Combien pour une nuit?” David asked in French. How much for a night?

“Cent dollars,” the officer replied. One hundred dollars.

“Non, non! Very expensive!”

The officer shrugged his arms. He thought he totally had us and would make a nice bit of money off a hotel referral. But then I pointed to the tent attached to my backpack.

“We can sleep outside in this?” I asked.

The officer stared at me confused, as if he couldn’t comprehend the unfolding situation. “There are white people who sleep in tents? This must be a joke.”

He uttered oui as if it were a question, like he himself wanted to see where this was going. David and I left the cabin with the officer walking right behind us. He called over a bunch of his soldiers to witness the spectacle. We found a nice patch of clear grass a few tens of meters away from a river embankment, took out our head flashlights, and began to pitch our tent. All the while this officer watched us in disbelief.

When our tent was ready, we put our backpacks inside along with the sewed up bed sheets we used as sleeping bags and bid the officer bonne nuit. Puzzled, the officer and his soldiers smiled and wished us bonne nuit in return.

David and I taking a selfie in front of our camping site in Epulu.

We woke up late the next morning to the calming sound of the nearby river. We took our dirty clothes along with some soap and brushes to its banks and scrubbed them down, using the river water to wash them clean. When our clothes were mostly dry, we packed up the tent and the rest of our belongings and left the military outpost. The soldiers on duty during the night had since been relieved, and their replacements didn’t seem to know who we were or why we were coming from the river.
  The river near our camping site in Epulu.

We walked a few kilometers up the dusty dirt road until we reached an area lined with a few dozen mud-brick buildings with thatched roofs. Other than a few corner stores selling basic provisions like tomato paste and eggs, there wasn’t too much going on there. Mostly naked, unsupervised children ran around the road kicking various pieces of garbage. Adults sat in front of the different buildings staring into space. This was downtown Epulu.

David on the main drag in Epulu.

After booking a room with two beds in a mud-built hotel for ten dollars a night, we asked an exceptionally short Pygmy man which way to the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Without saying a word, he sullenly looked over at the direction down the road leading out of town and pointed straight with his entire hand.

As we walked, we saw dozens of Pygmy men and women in mostly torn clothing carrying various goods in the opposite direction. Not one person had a smile and no one made the slightest eye contact with us. It was as if they were ghosts. They looked mentally and physically broken down. As each Pygmy passed us by, David and I felt we were entirely invisible.

David posing with a Pygmy man on the main road in Epulu.

We thought it would be awkward and insulting to ask Pygmies to pose in pictures with us, so David and I snapped pictures of each other while carefully capturing the unknowing Pygmies in the background.

I couldn’t imagine the kind of horror and pain these people had experienced in the decades prior to our visit, so I didn’t judge their behavior. I considered the possibility that they were just beat and hungry. But I also thought that maybe these forest people just preferred to be left alone and couldn’t trust someone not of their own kind, especially not scary giants like David and me.

Giants? Me and David? The idea sounded preposterous. I was just about six feet tall, but David was only five foot four. Still, David looked huge next to these people. It wouldn’t have been too surprising if these Pygmies were naturally afraid of men like us.

We encountered Africans in extremely remote villages without much exposure to white people who reacted in all sorts of ways to us. Some, like the mother and child on the bus to Epulu, stroked our body hair like we were pets. Others, we discovered, believed that white men had magical powers, were extremely dangerous, and not to be trusted. Some small children even cried when they saw us walking down a street, as if they didn’t know what species we were.

The Okapi Wildlife Reserve itself was beautiful. The park is 24,000 square kilometers but the area accessible to visitors was the small Epulu Conservation and Research Center. It was directly underneath extremely dense forest cover in the Ituri Forest.

There, fourteen shy okapi and their half dozen Congolese and foreign caretakers maintained a tranquil existence that seemed far removed from the chaos and instability that plagued Congo. The staff, led by a British conservationist who had lived in Congo with her husband on and off for decades, were very excited to have us as guests.

“Having visitors is an extremely welcome treat,” she said. “We’re mostly just left out here all alone.”

A year after our visit, on the morning of June 24, 2012, I’m sure she and the rest of her staff would have preferred it that way.

That day, fifty men from the Mai Mai rebel group emerged from deep in the Ituri Forest led by a feared elephant poacher named Morgan. Armed with AK-47s and machine guns, they looted and burned down the research center and murdered two park rangers, the wife of another, and four more people in the town of Epulu. Women were taken hostage and raped. Other buildings and businesses in Epulu were looted and burned to the ground. Thirteen of the fourteen okapi were shot dead during that horror-filled day. The fourteenth okapi, wounded and severely traumatized, died shortly after.

An okapi living in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in Epulu.

Ironically, I heard about this tragedy the day after it happened from a zoo worker while visiting the okapi section of the Cincinnati Zoo. Looking at the tranquil okapi and thinking about the people I’d met who worked there at the Epulu Center, I thought I might throw up. It reminded me that in Congo, even in the most seemingly tranquil setting, danger and catastrophe always lurk close by.

After our day at Epulu, we decided we needed time in real authentic nature. We got up at a decent hour, bought some bananas, bread, and water, and headed in a random direction inside the Ituri Forest. We walked for about six hours through uninterrupted rain forest. We climbed up to see magnificent views of Congo’s scenery and really felt as though we were in a part of a world untapped by humanity.

Until we came across a totally authentic Pygmy village of eight huts and a fire pit. The village was completely empty, but there were traces of life. Some recently burned wood and a few gutted animal carcasses were lying around. Each of the huts was less than a meter and a half tall and made entirely of tree branches, leaves, and mud. There were no identifiable valuables to be found of any kind, not even a sleeping mat or a cloth pillow-case filled with leaves.

A Pygmy village deep in the Congolese forest

These habitats were more basic than anything I’d ever seen before. It was like the Pygmies of Congo were living in the Stone Age.

Me next to a Pygmy hut.

It took us a solid forty-five minutes to find our way back to the main road. All I could think about as we hiked back to town was how hard basic living must be for them. I wanted to ask them what it was like to struggle every day just to find food.

Ironically, David and I had started asking ourselves that same question and we were fast coming up with the definitive answer: It sucks.

This was the fifth day of our Congo excursion and we were starving. The only meal we’d had of substance in the country was the feast of chicken and chips with the South American generals. We’d been surviving on bananas, mangoes, and bread. Everything else we ate we bought in what we called “food huts.” Calling a “food hut” by the term “restaurant” would have been giving it way too much credit. In the food huts, we were nearly always served barely edible soggy rice and bush meat, of which we could stomach very little.

Bush meat refers to wild game hunted by locals. The meat could have literally been anything: rabbit, goat, ox, pig, or ape. I prefer not to think about what we ingested out of sheer necessity. Frequently, many food hut owners regrettably informed us they simply didn’t have any food on a given day. The night before, when David and I returned from seeing the okapi, almost none of the food huts in Epulu had anything to eat. One food hut owner, an older aggressive woman who was taller even than me, laughed off our hungry plight and told us to come back the next day if we wanted to eat.

Instead, we went to a corner store and purchased raw eggs, tomato paste, and rice from a woman working there. We tried our best to explain we didn’t have any way to cook it and begged her to prepare it for us. At first she shrugged off our request, even after being offered extra money, but then agreed when she understood how desperate we were. She went down the street to a few of her friends and returned with a pot, a frying pan, oil, and a large bottle of water.

Only then did we really understand. Her initial refusal to prepare the food really had nothing to do with money. It was really simply a huge hassle to collect all the ingredients and dishes necessary to prepare a simple meal. It was easier to let us starve.

When we arrived back in Epulu after our hike that day, we were extraordinarily hungry and starting to feel extremely irritable. Hunger changes people. Without consistent access to basic nourishment, a human being can turn into an angry animal incapable of empathy with others. Although Epulu had been fairly calm and pleasant, David and I still didn’t feel safe trusting many of the Congolese, who continued to watch us from afar with guarded suspicion. Our hunger only fueled our feelings of paranoia.

We returned to the woman who had cooked for us the night before. This time she offered to sell us only the eggs, tomato paste, and rice. She refused to go through the hassle of cooking for the two white men. When we insisted she change her mind and offered more money than before, she looked on at us with scolding eyes.

After the intensity of our hike, we were truly, desperately hungry. We nearly started screaming and cursing at her in English. Luckily, an angel came to save the day.

“My brothas,” a male voice called out from behind us. We turned around and saw a tall, muscular man in his mid-20s with unkempt hair and very dark brown skin. “Come join me and mah fellas. There will be enough food for you two.”

David and I smiled. We recognized this man’s facial features and accent. He was from Kenya. The best part of our adventure in Africa up until then had been in Kenya. Though Kenya certainly has its issues with safety, we found the vast majority of Kenyan people exceedingly friendly, warm, and fun to be around. Compared to the Congolese at least, this man whom we’d known for all of five seconds was like a brother.

No questions asked, we followed him down Epulu’s main road to a small encampment he’d set up near a large eighteen-wheel truck. He introduced us to his two companions, older men with beards who were drinking ice cold Tuskers, a popular brand of Kenyan beer.

“It is an honor for you to be with us,” he said as he patted us on our backs. “Today is a celebration because tomorrow we get to leave this dark place!”

While his companions cooked a vegetable stew on a burner and heated up some bread, our new Kenyan friend explained that the three of them were truckers delivering construction equipment from Mombasa on the Kenyan coast to Kisengani, a few hundred kilometers west of Epulu, for a Chinese company.

“We stopped the truck right here in this town only for a night,” he said. “But in the morning, the truck was broke! My fella here checked the engine and saw that a very important piece of the engine was missing. The people here broke into our truck and robbed us of our ability to leave! I found a phone to call the Chinese boss and he was very upset.”

“So he sent you some help?” David asked.

“No sir! He just told us he would not pay us until we made our delivery.”

“But how could you make your delivery with a broken truck?”

“I don’t know. He is a bad man! He refused to send us any help. So we took the money we had and we sent our other fella back to Kenya to get the missing part! He arrived back here a few days ago. He fixed up the truck and now we are going back to Kenya.”

“You’re not going to make the delivery now?”

“For that China man? I don’t think so! We’ve been here for three bloody months! We had no money for anything. Our families don’t even know where we are! We don’t have a phone. We don’t have Internet here. My wife was pregnant when I left. Now I am a father. I have to go see my family.”

“How did you survive without money for three months?”

“It was so hard. We did little mechanical jobs for people on the trucks and cars. We barely got paid anything. The people here are animals. They are not like you and me!”

David and I looked at each other and back at the Kenyan and were flattered by the feeling of commonality.

We told him about our Congo trip thus far, including of our adventures that day in the forest.

“You are very naïve men! There are elephant poachers in the forest at all times. They would not hesitate to kill two white men like you and feast on your meat! These people don’t care about the human life. If they smell weakness they will eat you alive. This place Congo is very bad. I will leave and never come back here. This is not civilization. This country is hell! You have been lucky so far. But you must get out of here while you can!”

After that story, we didn’t need much convincing. The Kenyans said we were welcome to hitch a ride with them on their truck and that they’d give us a good price for the journey. We politely declined. They were making their way to a border crossing north of Kasindi, where the roads were much easier to navigate, while we were en route to Rwanda.

Part 4 to come

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Inside the Heart Of Darkness (part two)

Part One of Inside the ‘Heart of Darkness:’ The quest of two adventurers for street cred in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Kivu region in the eastern DRC is a major flashpoint of military conflict. Since 1998, fighting between the DRC army and rebel militias has taken over five million lives. Armed groups are known to pillage, rape, kill, and kidnap indiscriminately. The Congolese military, which isn’t exactly known for embracing exemplary moral fiber either, is boosted by thousands of UN peacekeeping forces.

The border town of Kasindi disoriented me in ways that I’d never experienced anywhere else in the world. It looked like a town that had been devoured in its entirety and then regurgitated with characters from the Walking Dead. Crumbling buildings were placed haphazardly; shops and stalls set up wherever owners felt like; vehicles and people moved about chaotically.

The amount of garbage made the whole town look like a giant waste pit. Many people, mostly men, stumbled about like strung-out zombies with bloodshot red eyes glancing around erratically. Those who didn’t seem to be high on drugs looked suspicious and permanently on guard. And they kept on staring at us.

No one bothered to say hello, practice their English, or even beg for money like we’d experienced in the rest of East Africa. They watched us alright, but in a way that only made us feel like targets.

A scrawny man was selling bags of what I thought were French fries to people on the street. In order to strike up a conversation with a local, I ordered some frites. The man didn’t say much other than oui and didn’t look me in the eye. He handed me a greasy brown bag and I walked off. When I peeked inside, all I saw were tiny fish heads. I didn’t eat them.

David and I headed over to the nearest bank in search of an ATM machine. We weren’t sure we’d find another ATM machine for the duration of our ten-day trip, so we pulled out $300 in Congolese francs each. That turned out to be a good guess.

The US dollar was worth 900 Congolese francs at the time. What we didn’t know was that the largest note the ATM would give us was a 500.

The 540 individual bills we each received were enough to fill a briefcase that would have made a drug dealer proud. While dozens of stone-faced Congolese looked at us with interest, we stuffed cash into our money belts, pockets, and backpacks. We didn’t want to put all the money in one place in case of theft. We'd been in the country for a half hour, and already it wouldn’t have surprised me if my pants were stolen off my legs.

We walked over to where a half a dozen old Japanese commuter buses were parked in disarray. The interiors looked as if a tornado had passed through. Cigarette ash and glass covered the floors. Seats were torn up and disconnected from each other.

We found a bus traveling to Beni (the nearest major town just west of the Rwenzori Mountains) and Virunga National Park, home of one of the largest groups of endangered mountain gorillas in the world.

The bus couldn’t leave with just the two of us, so we waited about ninety minutes for it to fill up. In came the man who’d sold me the fish heads instead of frites, three Congolese soldiers with Kalashnikov rifles, two women with impressive amounts of facial hair, two handcuffed bandits and an armed policeman, and another man accompanied by four scrawny chickens.

I sat in a window seat next to one of the Congolese soldiers who was surprisingly friendly. Whenever he smiled I could see a prominent gap where his two front teeth should have been. When he started asking me for money in French, I pretended I didn’t know what he wanted. One of the handcuffed bandits was seated right behind me and a chicken planted himself in front of my left foot. With this cast of a Monty Python sketch we were all set to go.

Unfortunately, another bus driver had parked his bus directly in front of the main path leaving town. None of the buses were able to maneuver around it. It took another hour until the driver with the keys was found. He was nearly too drunk to walk, much less drive. He stumbled along the rocky path and fell over a few times as he approached his vehicle. All I could do was look down and pray that David and I were going to be okay.

Kasindi and Beni are only sixty kilometers apart, but it took us over seven hours to get there. There were no conventional “roads” to Virunga National Park. It was more like a dirt path had been haphazardly forged over time from the brute force vehicles inflicted upon the terrain.

Our less than ten kilometer-per-hour pace was made more agonizing because we couldn’t see very much around us. Surrounded by the second largest rain forest in the world, the tree cover blocked out most of the sunlight and all we could see were thick, enormous trees everywhere. It was definitely beautiful in its own way, but after awhile, green is just green.

David and I had no idea the journey would take so long. When we arrived in Beni after midnight we were exhausted and starving. We immediately lost our appetites when three large policemen seized us as we got off the bus. Without so much as explaining what they wanted, they sternly ordered us towards a tiny building a few dozen meters off the main path.

They sat us down inside a cold and dusty room in front of a bald, husky commander stationed behind a rickety desk.

“Registration,” he mumbled with a grin. Registration is not the French word for registration, but that would prove to be the major word Congolese officials used. “Passports!” he demanded.

We handed over our passports and opened them up to the pages with our transit visas. The commander inspected our passports carefully, but the way he meticulously turned them upside down made me wonder if he was even able to read.

“Visas pas valide!” he shouted while shaking his finger from side to side. Visas not valid!

“Quoi?! Pourquoi?!” we yelled frantically. What?! Why?!

He responded in some rapid-fire language that sounded like a jumble of French, Swahili, and Klingon. We could barely understand a word. Though the French vocabulary David and I had between us was limited, we could tell that this commander didn’t necessarily speak it fluently either.

The commander became frustrated when we didn’t understand what he was saying so he waved the other officers to take us away. They grabbed each of us by the arm and led us to a small dusty room next door with two chairs.

We were scared, of course, but at the time, neither of us realized that they’d just put us in their equivalent of a holding cell. Twenty minutes later, the guards retrieved us and put us back in front of the commander. This time there was another man beside him. He was young-looking, short, and not in uniform. He was clearly bothered and uncomfortable, and didn’t seem to want to be sitting there any more than we did. But he did speak English.

“Just give them something,” he gently urged us. “Any little something will be okay.”

“Oh!” David said mockingly. “They want a bribe!”

“It is late. The soldiers are very tired. They don’t want to keep you here. Give them something and they will let you go.”

David and I had a lot of experience with people shamelessly extorting us for money. Nearly every day of our trip we had multiple people asking, begging, and occasionally outright demanding cash from us, as if it was our duty to give it to them just because we were white.

Up until then, David and I had only given cash donations of any kind to handicapped or elderly people. Not once had we ever outright allowed ourselves to be extorted, though our “purchase” of our second Congolese visas was a bit border-line. We weren’t about to start by paying off a bunch of asshole military officers who were up past their bedtime.

“Tell them that we are tourists, our visas are valid, and that it’s time for us to find a hotel,” David said with a smile.

Maybe our refusal to pay a little bribe and get on with our trip was naïve. But now we knew that this commander wanted to get out of there just as badly as we did. By then it was nearly 1:30am. David and I felt a boost of confidence. We were tourists with time to kill. We could outlast these thugs.

The man translated what we’d said to the commander. The commander then walked out to discuss the issue with his soldiers. Five minutes later, he returned and showed us the door. We were free!

Almost. The commander was visibly disgruntled he got nothing out of us. So he escorted us to the closest hotel along with his English translator.

“You take two rooms. Each room is six dollars per night,” the translator told us matter-of-factly.

“We’d like to stay in a room together,” David protested.

“Impossible. You will take two. That is the law.”

We decided not to push our luck. The commander handed us our keys and made sure David and I were in our separate rooms before he and his translator finally departed. Neither room had electricity, just a few lit candles and boxes of matches. I wasn’t used to being alone after two months of traveling with David. Although he was in the room next door, it felt like we were miles apart.

Maybe it was because I was tired, hungry, or just overwhelmed from that night’s ordeal, but as soon as I blew out the candles and my room went pitch black, I was truly afraid. This was the first time I’d felt that way on the Africa trip.

I woke up the next morning and took a short walk by myself to get a handle on our surroundings. Beni appeared to be a real functioning city. There were colorful buildings everywhere, food stands were propped up and organized decently, people were hustling off to different places, and there was the radiant feeling of simplicity that can make Africa feel so wonderful.

A neighborhood in Beni close to the main road

That feeling lasted until breakfast. I woke David up and we went to a mini-market to buy something to eat. When we approached the checkout carrying baked bread and a few bananas, we were told by the young (non-bearded!) woman managing the place that our bill would be three US dollars.

David and I gave the woman a confused glance. This was Congo, not the US. Why would we be expected to pay in dollars?

We explained that we only had francs on us. The woman said that was fine and told us our new bill 2,760 francs.

Due to our limited French, David once again took out his pencil and notebook. He wrote “1 USD = 900 Congolese francs. 3 USD = 2,700 francs.”

The woman shook her head calmly, took David’s pencil and wrote “920,” to imply that one US dollar was equivalent to 920 francs.

The woman didn’t seem like she was lying, but we knew the exchange rate was 900:1. It was possible her boss preferred to be paid in US dollars and was trying to cheat people out of more francs if he couldn’t get the currency he demanded.

David returned his pencil and notebook to his backpack and we left. We found another market a block down the road. There, we tried to purchase the same quantity of bananas and bread as we had at the previous place. Once again, we were asked to pay three US dollars. When we asked for the figure in francs, we were given a new figure: 2,820. The franc/dollar exchange rate had just jumped to 940:1.

By then we were truly starving, not having eaten for at least sixteen hours. We made one final attempt at a third mini-market, but when the exchange rate rose to 960 francs to the dollar, we returned to the first mini-market and paid what was necessary to get some food in our bellies.

We ended up negotiating the franc/dollar exchange rate nearly every time we had to make a purchase. It was extremely irritating and reinforced the feeling that this country was out to get us.

Beni was filled with cars, had some paved roads, and structurally sound buildings. It seemed like a delightfully modern third-world city. David and I decided to walk around and get a sense of the city. We were strolling along the sidewalk when suddenly I felt a poke on my butt.

I looked around and a saw Congolese guy running a few dozen feet away laughing along with his buddies. I had no idea what to do so I brushed it off. Then it happened again. And then it happened to David. Pokes, and then spanks.

I started to understand what women experienced from street harassment.

At one point, when my butt got yet another proper spanking, the adrenaline and stress from the situation almost got the better of me. I turned around, stared straight at the perpetrator, a short guy in a ripped t-shirt and shorts, yelled at him in English, and approached him aggressively.

I wanted to punch that motherfucker in the face. I wanted to fight him as payback to all the jerks who thought this was a funny game. Never in my life had I felt that kind of rage towards someone who didn’t really do anything to me that was particularly violent. David grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back.

The next time someone slapped my butt, we were walking near a busy intersection. Just when I was about to lose my temper, a motorcyclist veered off the road and wiped out a few feet from where we were. He was immediately surrounded by half-dozen people, including the guy who’d slapped me. The man was knocked unconscious and the people surrounding him seemed to be checking his vital signs in an effort to stabilize him. They laid him out on the ground, ripped open his shirt, and went through his pockets to find his ID. So I thought.

They were robbing him. One man snatched a necklace from around his neck, another took his belt and shoes, and the rest of them went through the contents of his wallet before they all ran off. Only after that did some people come to see if he was okay.

It was then that I realized how desperate, opportunistic, and cruel some of these people were. I realized how stupid it would be to get myself dragged into a senseless fight. I had no idea what they were capable of, but I was starting to get an idea.

On our second morning in Beni, David and I were strolling down a major road when a white Land Cruiser bearing the UN logo sped past us. We got a quick glance at the passengers. Two middle-aged white men wearing green fatigues. The first white people we’d seen in Congo.

The two soldiers in the Land Cruiser took notice of us as well. It stopped abruptly and backed up. Sensing that the two men wanted to speak with us, we stopped where we were and waited for them to come to us.

“You guys need a ride?” the driver said in a thick Latin American accent after he rolled down his window.

“Yeah, sure,” David answered enthusiastically.

“Where do you need to go?”

“Nowhere really,” David said sort of smugly. “What is there to do around here?”

“What is there to do? There’s nothing ‘to do’ here,” the man said astonished. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“We’re just traveling.”

“Get in the vehicle immediately.”

Our two new traveling companions were much more than mere soldiers. They were generals in the Chilean and Argentinean armies on a dangerous peacekeeping mission in the eastern DRC. Unlike most UN peacekeeping assignments, the combat units these generals were responsible for did have the authority “to use all necessary means” to protect civilians, humanitarian personnel, and human rights defenders under imminent threat of physical violence. They made it clear that their units had seen military action against guerrilla groups and that the threat of violence in the eastern DRC was real.

“Do you have any idea how crazy you are to be traveling around here by yourselves?” the general in the passenger’s seat rebuked. “You’re just walking along the road like you’re anywhere else but Congo! We haven’t seen travelers in the nine months we’ve been here.”

“Well we’re to explore,” I responded.

“Apparently. Can’t think of another reason you’d bother to be here. Still, I have to hand it to you. Traveling in the DRC means you must be brave.”

David and I looked at each other and we knew we were both thinking: Street cred!

Our new friends from South America drove us to an all but empty upscale restaurant owned by a half Greek-half Congolese man and treated us to a relatively tasty chicken and chips lunch. The owner, a heavyset man who complained incessantly about business being slow (I can’t imagine why), strongly recommended we go to a far flung place called Epulu, a few hundred kilometers northwest in the neighboring Orientale Province.

“There you will see the okapi animal,” he said slowly and dramatically. “It is half-giraffe and half-zebra!”

Well, sort of. The okapi is a creature that is most closely related to the giraffe, yet it has some of the same characteristics as a zebra. Like the giraffe, it has a long neck and long limbs, but it’s not nearly as tall. The upper parts of its legs and rump are marked with white and black transverse stripes, giving it a zebra-like appearance. Nevertheless, it is its own distinct species and is native to the central region of DRC.

The restaurant owner raved about the okapi conservation project in Epulu and began insisting we go that afternoon.

“There is a bus leaving in one hour! I will call and arrange the tickets for you!” he said. He waved over an extremely skinny elderly man of clearly mixed European-Congolese heritage who was getting wasted over a glass of whiskey at the bar and told him in French to fetch us two bus tickets.

Before we had a chance to ask any more questions, the old man was already off to buy the tickets and the UN generals informed us they’d give us a lift to our guesthouse so we could fetch our bags and meet the bus.

The restaurant owner asked that we pay him forty dollars a person for the bus tickets, since “it was a very long ride.” We got the feeling he had been so insistent of us going because he was getting a kickback from the bus company. It didn’t matter too much. The South American generals trusted him and he was helping us continue our adventure. And he didn’t screw us on the dollar-franc exchange rate.

Monday, February 9, 2015

1. Inside the ‘Heart of Darkness:’ The quest of two adventurers for street cred in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Democratic Republic of Congo. For most people the name brings to mind civil war; genocide; mass rape; cannibalism.

Not us. Whenever I came upon a map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- the winding path of the deep Congo River and “Heart of Darkness" -- my only thought was “forbidden fruit.” During my three month backpacking trip around East Africa in the spring of 2011, as I zigzagged through Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda with my childhood pal David, both of us felt as though mysterious Congo was calling for us, begging us to come say hello.

We asked the few other western travelers in Africa we bumped into if they’d been to the DRC or had any information about traveling there.


“Wouldn’t dare.”

“Are you crazy?”

The information in Lonely Planet was scant. Online travel message boards were virtually non-existent.

We were not deterred. Rather, the curious itch became a burning desire, the only cure for which were authentic DRC entry and exit stamps on our passports.

Still, it wasn’t an inherent attraction to danger that propelled our desire to visit the DRC. It was the appeal of visiting a country completely off the tourist trail, a place almost completely unknown to outsiders. An opportunity to have a real adventure. We were 25 year old single men lacking any real life responsibility. This was our chance to get the ultimate traveler “street cred.”

What intensified our obsession was not knowing if we’d even be let in if we tried. The US State Department’s website said that tourist visas to the DRC could only be received in one’s home country. Slightly discouraged but feeling we had nothing to lose, David and I dropped by the DRC’s embassy in the Ugandan capital of Kampala one afternoon towards the end of March.

Inside the embassy’s stuffy non-air-conditioned waiting room, about a dozen quiet, lethargic Africans of different nationalities sat waiting to be called up to the main window. The smell of dried sweat and body odor permeated my nostrils and made it difficult to concentrate. Deodorant is not common in East Africa.

I sat silently next to David focusing on breathing solely out of my mouth. A small sign in English outlined the prices of a Congolese tourist visa by nationality.

“Citizens of USA and Canada: $300.
Citizens of the European Union: $180.
Citizens of all other countries: $50.”

David and I were raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, but we both held multiple passports. David immigrated with his family to Australia after high school and I immigrated to Israel after finishing up university.

When we were finally called to approach the consular desk to submit visa applications, we hid our American passports and presented our second passports.

The middle-aged woman sitting behind the consular desk had no expression when we walked up to her. Her lips didn’t move and she looked as though she was seeing straight through us.

When she picked up my Israeli passport and flipped through the pages, her eyes grew wide and her face became animated.

“You are a son of Abraham!” she shouted in awe. “You are holy!”

Evangelical Christianity of the extremely pro-Israel bent is wildly popular in East Africa, Uganda in particular. It's common to see Israeli flags drawn or painted on the walls of shops. Many African Christian organizations profess solidarity with Israel. People often became very excited when they found out that David and I were Jewish.

When I told her that David was also a “son of Abraham,” she could barely contain herself.

“You sons of Abraham must come to my country! You must bless my people!” she insisted. When we informed her that we planned on staying in the DRC for around ten days and would be exiting the country via Rwanda, she offered to issue us two-week transit visas for only $35.

“I promise your visas will be granted immediately!”

Either she was lying or she had a very different idea of what “immediately” meant. The visas ended up taking over a week. We checked in at the embassy three days in a row to see what the situation was.

“There is no electricity here right now. It is impossible to issue the visa until it returns,” she told us each time.

That seemed to make sense. David and I had many colorful visas in our passports that had to be printed out. Not having electricity meant the printers didn’t work.

When we finally received our passports we discovered simple ink stamps that didn’t require any printing at all. Oh Africa.

David and I spent another week and a half exploring western Uganda before arriving at the tiny border town of Mpondwe on April 1, 2011. We decided it was in our best interest not to tell our parents about our Congo travel plans. They would have worried incessantly (and rightly so). The only person who knew what we were doing was David’s older brother, also an avid adventurer who sympathized with our yearning to explore. We told our folks we were heading out on a hiking trip in a remote region of western Uganda where we wouldn’t have phone or Internet access.

“And when will we be able to communicate with you again?” my Dad asked during our last muffled phone call.

“April 11th,” I replied. “Mom’s birthday.”

“Great! It will be nice for your mother to hear that you’re alive!”

“Yeah, it will be.”


We received our Ugandan exit stamps on our American passports from a fat Ugandan border official who’d made small talk with us when we filled out the immigration forms. His name was Fanta – a silly acronym that he said stood for “Foolish Arabians Never Take Alcohol.” He stamped us out and only then asked where our Congolese visas were.

“In our second passports,” David answered coolly.

As soon as he heard David’s response, Fanta gave a sinister smile, exposing his brown, rotting front teeth. He knew he had us.

“African countries do not recognize multiple citizenships,” he said slyly. “Your DRC visas are no good if they are not in the passports you left Uganda on. They will refuse you at the border. You will come back here and you will pay me $50 each to return to Uganda.”

David and I had a feeling that if he was right and we did have to return to Uganda, it wasn’t the Ugandan government that was going to profit $100 off us. It was Fanta.

“Countries everywhere recognize multiple citizenships!” David protested.

“Not African countries!” Fanta barked back. “I will say thank you for your cash donation in advance.”

We scoffed, lifted our bags, and began the kilometer-long trek through no-man’s land until we reached the Kasindi border crossing on the Congolese side. 

  Me at the Kasindi border crossing.

Congo. Just saying the name gave me an adrenaline jolt.

The Ugandan and Congolese no-man’s land is separated by a bridge that crosses a narrow river. As soon as we crossed the bridge, the paved road from the Ugandan side disappeared. It wasn’t even replaced by a gravel or dirt road. Just dirt and lots of garbage.

We approached the run-down brown building that served as the DRC’s border crossing and quickly made our way inside. Two male guards inspected our bags. The office was manned by female military officers with shocking amounts of facial hair. Female military officers with beards growing on their clearly feminine faces. This was turning into an adventure already!

Unlike Uganda, where English is widely spoken, the Congolese lingua franca is French. Neither David nor I had a good command of French, but we did know some of the basics.

Just as Fanta predicted, the short, pudgy female military officer with orange-tinged hair and a disturbing chin beard analyzed our visas and communicated to us in French that they were invalid. Although we understood her message, we sat still and played dumb to see if we could feign ignorance well enough to have her pass us across the border anyways.

She didn’t budge. We argued with her for a while using the wee French and Swahili we had at our disposal.

“Impossible!” she uttered over and over again. “Vous devez retourner!” You must return.

But we remained persistent. Finally, she suggested a compromise. She communicated that if we returned to the Ugandan border crossing and received Ugandan exit stamps on our Israeli and Australian passports, she would recognize our transit visas.

“No, no it is impossible!” Fanta explained gleefully when we told him our predicament after walking the full kilometer back to the Ugandan border post. “African countries do not recognize multiple nationalities!”

“These young white men are very naïve,” he told a group of border officials standing nearby. “They do not know where they are in the world. The white man does not control Africa anymore. We must help him to understand this.”

“We don’t control Africa anymore?” I repeated quietly to myself. My grandparents were Jews from Poland. What part of Africa did the Jews from the Pale of Settlement colonize?

This wasn’t the first time we’d experienced Africans enjoying exerting power over us just because we were two white men. Still, we let his comments pass.

“So what will you do?” Fanta asked us. “You will come back to Uganda and purchase new visas from me?”

David and I looked at each other and we instantly knew we were thinking the same thing.

“Absolutely not,” we said together as we stormed out of the office.

Africa suffers from widespread corruption. We knew that. But we decided if we were going to pay anyone off, it was going to be a French-speaking bearded chick, not Fanta.

“You will be back here and you will pay me what I am owed!”

“You’re such an asshole!” David burst out in anger. “You know what Fanta really stands for? ‘Fuck Africa Never Trust Anyone!’”

We arrived back at the DRC border crossing without the exit stamps we needed. We begged the bearded female officer for some other way. We couldn’t go back to Uganda, we said. It was like we were refugees.

The officer pulled out a pencil and notepad, wrote down the number 50, and gave us a wink. We would have to pay her $50 each for new visas in our American passports.

David picked up the pencil she placed on her desk and wrote “50 minus 35 = 15” to convey that we already paid $35 for our other visas. If the new ones cost $50, we should only have to pay $15 each. When David was finished, he extended his hands as if to show a sign of respect and to indicate that he was trying to be fair.

The bearded female officer stared back at us seemingly impressed with our polished negotiation skills. She whispered something to one of our associates, glanced over at us once more, and tipped her hand towards her mouth to imply she was thirsty.

She was basically saying, “$15 each and we’ll give you your visas on your American passports. Just throw in a few beers and we’re square.”

One short mini-market visit later and we were officially inside Kasindi, Kivu Province, Congo.

Next post: Inside the Democratic Republic of Congo

  David Maze at the Kasindi border crossing 

  Me near the Kasindi border crossing: note the name of the Institute on the sign!