March 31, 2005

The Annex, Spicy Chicken, Easter in Congo, Chez Tintin, Bucket bath and Mosquitoes

The Annex

This weekend is my first in a strange place. Again. Except this time, I’m in Congo. I now live in a small self-sufficient annex to a large house, with tall walls and guards that make me feel a little bit uneasy in my own home. Since I'm far relatively far from the city center, I am lent a large stick-shift jeep just in case of an emergency (read: coup d'état).
I haven't practiced driving here yet nor have a valid driver's license.

The electricity (and subsequently lights and AC) turns off and on at least 30 times in 4 hours. Ugh.

Spicy Chicken

I coax a couple of colleagues to go out for lunch and dinner with me (suckers!). We go to a café for lunch and this swanky spicy chicken restaurant for dinner.

In order to go to the swanky spicy chicken restaurant, one has to drive through the "quartier populaire" down a few dark, sinewy streets much like a labyrinth. The roads are jutted with holes bigger than hula hoops (I wish only that I had worn my sports bra).

Then, when it seems like it can't get possibly darker, meeker and more convoluted, a door-man opens the thick metal doors leading to a wonderfully orange and red restaurant with a Congolese band serenading the clients with a mix a music from Africa, France and Mexico. The chicken is wonderful.

Easter in Congo

My first morning in the Annex is punctuated by loud gospel music, an enthusiastic minister discussing the bible, a very responsive crowd and the occasional rooster chanting the morning "cock a doodle doo!".

Grumble. It goes on for something liked 6 hours, I swear.
(I am later reminded that it's Easter Sunday explaining the rather excess length of the service).

Later in the afternoon, when the signing finally stops, I revel in the 5 minutes of silence...until Muslim chanting from the local Mosque starts. D'oh.

Chez Tintin

On Sunday, we go to a local restaurant called "Chez Tintin".

The following rules are posted on a black board:
1. Please do not bring your own food
2. Do not take pictures of the river
3. Do not take photos
4. Don’t go swimming in the river

What, no pictures? Argghhh.

Fast, brown water flows on dark rocks surrounded by pools of stagnant water with thousands of tadpoles punctuated with green grass (I am still amazed by the green of it all). On the farthest rocks lie rusted skeletons of heavy artilleries and a few children risk dunking themselves on the shallow portions of the river in their underwear.

Bucket Bath

Upon coming home, I itch to take a nice, long bath. I open the tap only to realize that there is no running water. Aw shoot.

Do you realize how difficult it is to wash your hair in one inch of water? I manage to pour water from a heavy bucket (designed for such emergencies), while shaking my head and hoping that all the shampoo has magically dissolved from my roots.

A heavy downpour of rain starts while I am fighting with the heavy bucket to chase the last of the soap spuds away. I suddenly realize that I've left my wash on the line. Aw shoot.


Malaria are endemic here in RDC and the mosquitoes particularly tenacious. The precautions ones should take are the following

1. Wear long clothes on your arms and legs (what? long clothes? You gotta be kidding right? this is Africa and it gets damned hot)
2. Use a mosquito net (I brought one from Senegal but cannot find a spot to hang it from my ceiling is made from painted cardboard which couldn't hold the weight of the net)
3. Take anti-malarials (the antimalarial makes me feel ill, makes me a little bit hysterical and hyper-sensitive and, in the long-run, can do some serious damage to your liver)
4. Use mosquito repellent (Ok that one I can do)

It theory, there seem to be a lot of things one can do. In practice, this is another thing. Most people here cannot afford anti-malarials or repellent, and both the clothes and the mosquito net make the heat more unbearable.

To all you researchers out there: we need an anti-malaria vaccine.

March 30, 2005

Sunset. Gorgeous. Enough said. Posted by Hello

Ah, the scenery was gorgeous...As you can see, I took this picture when hiding behind my friend's legs. I didn't bother to crop it to show you the lengths I had to go in order not to be put in prison :) Posted by Hello

This is a Liboke (packaged fish in manioc leaves) along with the local beer (quite tasty). I took the picture from inside my handbag. A couple of meters behind us, stood a scary looking military man. Posted by Hello

March 28, 2005

Pet Peeve

Man oh man, I have so many things to tell you about my last three days in the DRC (not to mention that I would like to post my clandestine pictures very soon!). However, I forgot my laptop where I had written the new post and the thought of having to rewrite it again is disheartening.

My pet peeve is when people don't update their blog regularly. Which explains this seemingly useless entry :)

March 23, 2005

Still Green!

**First taste of Congolese food**
A colleague invited us to his little apartment to try a variety of Congolese foods cooked by his maid. The table was overflowing with fish, strange cheesy-looking squares of cooked dough and various sauces. The whole dinner was set to Congolese music videos with a big woman signing and strutting to New York backdrop (blue screen no doubt). The fish is very common and considered a delicacy. It's an ocean fish called Thompson, and since the DRC has no oceans (don't be embarrassed to take a look at a map), they receive it frozen from Namibia and sometimes Angola. The cheesy dough with the consistency of rubber was in fact a kind of bread made from Manioc flour. It tastes slightly sour and is said to give constipation in no time flat. Considering my chronic "intestinal issue from Senegal", I made sure to load up on that (see previous "BRAT" diet posts). It is called Chiwangue (or in Lingala, Kwanga).

The first Sunday there, we organized a trip to see the little town of Muluku right on the border of the country, separated by Congo-Brazzaville by a river where people fish and transport logs by letting them float along the current. As we paused by the side of the road, a police man, with loaded gun, comes up to us and points to my friend's camera. Apparently, it's illegal to take pictures in the Congo. My friend adamantly swore that she was just looking at some old pictures of previous trips to London and we managed to leave without paying the ubiquitous bribe.

Our lunch in Maluku was lovely. We sat on rickety chairs, under a thatched roof covered with plastic. The river was quiet and calm, reflecting the hills of the Congo-Brazzaville and the few pirogues that navigated it. Six pirogues were lying in wait of their owners by the side of the river. It was so picturesque, the water filling a holed pirogue reflecting the green, the clouds and the people. I tell you, it was almost begging me to take a picture.

It was a test of will not to whip out my trusty camera.

We ate fish that was still witching just moments before, wrapped in bundles of manioc leaves and left to simmer on a coal barbecue made from old petroleum kegs. Finally, after hours of having itchy fingers, I just cracked. I went for a walk by myself hoping to catch a clandestine shot of the area. Very quickly, friends joined me on my log to stare at the water. I snapped a quick picture on the scenery. I didn’t have much time to center or crop because there were soldiers around so I hope you'll excuse the results.

**Security Briefing**
The first day at work consisted mainly of a long, extended security briefing.
Amongst the things one needs to watch out for:
-Picking up soldiers in your car (even if they insist and are armed)
-Walking. Anywhere.
-Having too much money in your pocket yet having enough to "get yourself out of a sticky siuation"
-Taking public transportation or taxis
-Letting malaria-filled mosquitoes bite me

Things I have to do:
-Store enough dry food and water to last a week should unforeseen events keep you indoor (read: political upheavals)
-Notify the security guy if I intend to take a trip to the supermarket. To the store. To your house. To the gym. To the toilet.
-Lock my door behind me as well as the large steel grate in front of it (and, if the need arises, slide the heavy metal wall outside my apartment to cut off access of stairs to outsiders)

Oy! Some much for my love of independence... Hey, at least I get to walk to work.

Scene: Office in DRC
Person 1: We have not seen Employee in 3.42 seconds, alert authorities, alert authorities!
Person 2: Activate security procedures B12 NOW, we have a floater, I repeat, WE HAVE A FLOATER!

Cue: Alarm bells and red strobe lights sweep the entire office, a panicked crowd starts to gather close to the exits.

A sound of a flush is heard and employee X open the door to the women's toilet, looking a little perplexed and embarrassed.

Employee X: Sorry folks, I apologize for not alerting the chief of security that I was taking a dump.

March 22, 2005


Much to your surprise I'm sure, I have arrived safe and sound in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Except that I screwed up my plane ticket dates and actually arrived a day later than I was supposed to (I am already hearing mom snickering and saying "that's such a You thing to do").

**The Dreaded Airport**
Needless to say, I have already come down with a rather dire case of Culture Shock. My first contact with the DRC was the hectic mob they call the airport. A colleague of mine (you know who you are) had warned me about the N'Djili airport. To put it mildly, the trip from the plane to the gate to the luggage check is rather uneasy. The airport has a reputation of being rather disorganized, with difficult officials, people trying to "help" you with your bags and bribes needing to be paid. I was frazzled, tired and rather dehydrated but, apart from someone "helping" me to pull my bags (which consisted of edging himself between the bag and sharp corners to wedge my bag more deeply and then jimmying my bag out of the created situation--needless to say, I didn't pay him), I got out of it intact.

The first impression of the DRC is that it's very green! That may sound like a triviality to a lot of you but I've been hanging out with sand and goats for the better part of my 6 months in Senegal. There are rows and rows of trees, hills and green mountains, heck there's even grass here.

I was instantly greeted by one of my colleagues who stayed in the office until 9:30PM to welcome me. Now, I consider myself a nice girl, but even I wouldn't have done that! The following day was a Saturday and I was taken out shopping for essentials.

The weirdest thing was that all the items were priced with stickers: B24, A10, C17 etc. Puzzled, I ask around for what the actually prices are. It turns out that the Congolese franc is so devaluated and devolving that, if prices were set, a bottle of ketchup priced at $5 would only be worth $2.50 a month later. The way they get around that is that they set sticker prices and you have to match up the number (B35) with a list that translates the price. That way, when the franc drops, they don't have to change ALL the stickers on ALL the items. They just readjust the list, print it out and redistribute it. Pretty ingenious, especially when you consider that those 15 bills bursting out of your wallet actually represent 2 dollars.

Another strange particularity here is that small purchases are made with Congolese francs and large purchases (read: "more than 2 dollars") are made in US dollars. So, here I am paying at the stores for groceries that cost 8,000 francs (translate to US $16) and I give a $20 bill (so theoretically the cashier should give me $4 back) and I receive $2 and F1,000 (which makes sense since F1,000 is about US $2). D’oh. I smile at the cashier and hope to hell that she gives me the correct change back. Cause my little brain is not strong enough to process the information.

**more to come soon**

Safe and Sound

I arrived in the Congo on Friday safe and sound...The internet is a little bit slow in running (apparently a series of strong winds and rains have upset to satellite's reception) but I will update and reply to all my email as soon as it's a little more reliable.

Hope you are all doing well!

March 17, 2005

I'll be missing you...

The Touareg man with blue flowing dress and the white turban, wobbling on his bicycle trying to avoid the pills of sand to his left and the cars to his right.
Tiébou Dienn.
Tiébou Yab.
The wonderfully outrageously loudly colored Boubous that women wear.
The Salamalekoum, Malekoumsalam, Ca va?, Oui ca va bien et toi ca va?, ca va ca va et la famille ca va, ca va, et la matinee?, ca va ca va etc...
The bitter and sickeningly sweet Attaya in a shot glass.
The fried donuts made by women on the side of the street.
The daily 5:00am Muslim chanting.
The spontaneous little girls that come up to me to shake my hand.
The Baobabs.
The whole morning procession of popping one's head in everyone's office for the obligatory greetings.
Laughing at the outrageous prices of the Taxi men.
The multitudes of cool restaurants.
The Lebanese vendors.
The intricate jewelry made with fish spine, coffee beans and hand-shaped copper.
The overloaded Ndiagan Diaye buses (pronounce "Diagon-ji") that look like they're about to tip on their sides.
The men washing their feet and their faces in the street before prayer.
The flocks of sheep, goats that give you an insolent look and take their sweet time while crossing the street.
The daily getting-together of all wheelchaired persons by the edge of the ocean in the evenings.
The glimpse of Gorée Island by the beach.
The hens and their chicks in the flower beds.
Being able to buy one pat of butter, two cigarettes and 4 lumps of sugar.
The loud, obnoxious, busy crowds in Sandaga market.
The crazy Mauritanian shops that sell anything and everything.
The loud Muslim chants blaring from the back seat of shoddy taxis.
Baba Maal, Salif Keita (even if he's Malian), Ba Cissoko (even if they are Guinean), Youssou N'dour (even if I didn't get to see him live).
Lepers waving the fingerless hands at me in the morning.
Young boys practicing their Koranic chants on the stairs of the Mosque.
The intricately symmetrical hair weaves on young girls heads.
The shabby little restaurant by the side of the office that serves wonderful food in 3 seconds flat but never seems in a hurry for us to pay the bill.
The wonderful friends I have made here.

March 14, 2005

3 Trips Worth mentioning

I'm trying to get as much mileage out of Senegal as I can. A summary of my debaucheries.

Ngor Island
This is a small island of the coast of Dakar. One needs to hop on a dilapidated, slightly crowded pirogue to make the small trip across the water. I was never so happy to have a life-jacket, even it it did smell humid, musky and sweaty.

The day consisted of lying on the beach in our bikinis, walking around the island, oohing and aahing over the size of the huge mansions there, and fending off the unbearably persistent vendors (with sarcastic comments, annoyed sighs and I'm-looking-through-you-stares).

Fun fact #1: I'm still albino white--no offense to actual albinos.

Les Sables d'Or
The Sable d'Or are about 2 hours South of Dakar on the Petite Cote. We stayed in a hotel right on the beach, ate zebu, drank too much, looked at incredibly bright stars, and took plenty of motorcycle rides (it was nice but am definitely going to try to buy one, I want to keep up with the Jones' and besides, it's not half as fun riding on the back of one than actually riding your own).

Fun fact #2: the weather is definitely heating up, but I manage to stay as white as a ghost.

Le Lac Rose
Lac Retba, surnamed Lac Rose because it has an uncanny pink hue, is a place where salt is raked from the bottom, collected and sold on the local market.

The whole landscape looks like you've landed on an alien planet: it's eerily pink (minerals in the water), white (salt mounds), green (oddly shaped trees manage to grow in this extreme environment ) and beige (there are a lot of sand dunes).

Fun fact #3: Because of my snow white skin, I did finally manage to get a nasty sunburn on my shoulders and nose. And I was wearing a hat, slapping on spf cream, and obsessively staying in the shade (to the point where I would fold my arms against my body and skim walls in an effort to expose the least skin possible--this gave me an odd robotic and anally retentive gait). Today, I went from lobster red to porcelain color in three seconds flat...A very drab looking toilet bowl color, more exactly. D'oh.

A view from a motorcycle: a little baobab set again the town of Toubab Diallo Posted by Hello

Another view from a motorcycle: this is the town of Toubab Diallo from a high cliff. It looks gorgeous (which it is) but the picture doesn't render the half-built houses, the garbage heaps, the children bringing water back to their mothers and the horses pulling carts full of wood piles. Posted by Hello

This pelican took a liking to the hotel's owner. It would strut around the eating area like it owned the place. Occasionally the real owner, a human, would grab it by its beak back to the beach. Invariably it would sneak under the hedge and rule the place again. Posted by Hello

Poor birds stuck in a cage in our hotel. One of them would gnaw the metal bars and get its head stuck between parallel bars. The other would shriek in horror while the first one pushed against the bars with its legs to try to unwedge its head. They did this about 4 times an hour. Birds have no short term memory. Birds are funny.  Posted by Hello

Local people harvest the salt every day from the pink lac. You can see white mounds of highly refined salt and grey mount of coarsely harvested salt. Posted by Hello

Rare Sight: skinny and tall tree with sparse leaf tops growing by highly saline water. Not So Rare Sight: me stopping the flow of traffic to take lots of pictures Posted by Hello

March 11, 2005

She's not THAT cool assed

My friends mentionned that I hadn't been clear in my last post.

To clarify: My dentist is paying for ONE free tooth only, not the whole set of 6-9 teeth.

Come on folks, she's not that cool assed. I have faith in human generosity but let's not be ridiculous here :)

March 08, 2005

Cool Ass Dentist (not an oxymoron)

As I found out, being a cool ass dentist is not an oxymoron.

My dentist has been fixing a total of at least 6 to 8 teeth before I leave to the Congo. She is VERY thorough (at little too much?) and fills any tooth that might have the pretention of looking like it might --one day-- develop a cavity.

Today, she mentionned that the last molar on the left side of my mouth really ought to be filled too. I looked at her with a frightened look on my face (the lady is really a little too enthusiastic about working on my teeth) and told her that my insurance didn't cover dental works that cost more than $XXX. Which is completely true. She responded, "don't worry about it, it's on me".

How cool is that?

March 07, 2005

On Being Comfortable with One's Masculinity

It was a little bit of a shock when I first saw two young men holding hands in the street. They were talking animatedly and one of them put his arm around the other one's waist and grabbed his hand with the other. I shrugged it off and continued on my way. I have since seen many men holding hands in the street--it is said that people who are very close friends express their closeness in this way. Similarly, when someone that you know well shakes your hand, he/she will frequently take your elbow with his/her other hand to show the connection between you is strong.

It seems that men in the United States are so worried about appearances that they avoid any sort of contact with their male friends, lest their sexual orientation be put into question (oddly enough, it is OK to be physical when drunk or when having fun tackling your friend to the ground).

Are you confident with your masculinity?

March 04, 2005

Things Fall Apart

A mere two weeks --two weeks!-- before I have to leave to Congo, my phone started to spontaneously shut down, my camera won't shut its shutter and my laptop's mouse pad was unresponsive to my desperate attempts of directing the little pointer arrow (not to mention that it could only stand alone for 5 minutes before I had to plug it back in). Four light bulbs went out as soon as I flicked the switches on, I now live in near darkness.

Why oh why must Things Fall Apart just before I am about to leave?

Yesterday, a friend of mine saved all my documents on CDs, reinstalled windows XP with extra goodies like Page maker and partitioned my hard drive so that my programs would be on the C: drive and my documents on D: drive (this is a brilliant scheme to prevent viruses from infecting my documents). I was so grateful I ordered us loads and loads of food from this great restaurant (appetizers, main dish and dessert--the whole works).

I now have a clean computer with new battery (ordered from and sent through a friend at the US embassy), a new phone with a little plastic cover to protect it from the dust, and my camera actually worked fine all along (it turns out that the two sets of batteries that I used where no good--I don't recommend using locally manufactured batteries). My lights are still not working but I'm moving out soon.

Ah, I feel clean again (with the nagging doubt that I'm waaaaay too reliant on technology--who said going to Africa makes you less materialistic?).

March 02, 2005

Guinean Fabric

In a sort of panic, I went to Sandaga Market yesterday and started buying fabrics. I hear that the selection of fabric in Congo is not what it is in Senegal so I went from store to store getting some meters of this and that.

There are people who regularly walk around in the street with beautiful navy blue fabric and light blue tied-dyed patterns perched on their heads. I was always a little curious about that and asked a clerk in the store if she sold what those men were carrying. She answered (almost with a snarl) :"Madame, we don't sell fabric that's out in the street in here". I laughed, a trifle uncomfortably, at her snobbish answer.

I approached a man with the pieces of fabric on his head, not able to resist his warm smile. He sold me two of his prettiest pagnes (I'm sure I paid a lot more than the other customers but, oh well). He told me that they were traditional Guinean fabrics and that he himself was from Guinee. Ah, that would explain his huge smile (most Senegalese, although quite nice, do not spontaneously smile--unless they're trying to chat you up that is).

See Mrs. Store Clerk, no need to be such a snob about your fabric. Humpf!

Good-Bye Senegal, Hello Congo!

So, as it turns out, I'm leaving Senegal forever to work in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a period of two to four years. The implications of that are both terribly frightening and terribly exciting.

Things I need to do before I leave:

1. Get cavities filled (for some reason, when my dentist heard that I was leaving, she suddenly found six teeth to fix before I leave!)
2. Get plane ticket (I am leaving in 2 weeks and still don't have my plane ticket--insanity)
3. Pack all the shit that I've accumulated and send it through a moving company (who knew that six months would be enough to have a truckload of junk?)
4. Wrap-up a lot of work things
5. Go to all the cool places I haven't been to yet (scratch that, it's impossible)
6. Freak out a little about my next posting (this is an on-going activity)

Ugh. Anyone care to visit me there?