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.

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