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Monday, November 17, 2008

Time, Heat and Nutella

Kalemie.  Almost two weeks ago I was told I was going there for a couple of days.  It’s now going on a couple of weeks.  Originally, I was sent here to escape the perils of Goma.  With life in Goma now experiencing a much needed respite, I remain here as a prisoner against my will; a victim of cruel fate and the ever unpredictable needs of AirServ.  The sole companions at my new found and temporary home consist of the mosquitos hovering constantly over my head and the clock hanging crookedly on the wall beside me offering little but the time (12:17 p.m.), barometric pressure (924mb), humidity (97%) and the constant reminder of the the agonizingly slow passage of time.  

The time spent here so far has had its upsides.  It’s a nice change of scenery.  It’s safer than Goma which means you can walk around and go jogging in the evenings as the heat of the day begins to subside.  There’s a really cool church just up the road that has, hands down, some of the best music I’ve ever heard and incredible sermons translated from the pastors native Swahili.  Kalemie is also right on Lake Tanganika, providing an opportunity to gaze at a stunning eastward view of the mountains of Tanzania across the lake as they are bathed in the sunsets evening colors while the sun retires every night behind the hills that nestles downtown to the west.

But the charms proffered by Kalemie have slowly been overshadowed by it’s shortcomings.  It’s hot.  It’s humid.  Maybe not Chad hot and maybe not east-Texas humid, but for someone accustomed to coolness of Maine or the evening chill found not too far north in Goma, it is incredibly hot and painfully humid.  I’ve always been one who would prefer the cold over heat.  When you’re cold, you can always throw another log on the fire, put another sweatshirt on or crawl under a blanket.  When it’s hot, there’s only so many layers of clothes you can shed before you run the risk of offense or possible arrest.  And so in Kalemie you sweat until you think you’ve exhausted your bodily supply of moisture and then you sweat some more.  

There’s also no electricity here, at least none connected to the house that is convenient.  The only source of power is from the diesel generator that hides contemptuously in it’s little shed outside.  While it is certainly better than nothing it’s truly awe-inspiring how such a small contraption is capable of producing such a furious, soul-rattling sound.  Want to turn on a fan?  Boil some water to make dinner?  Maybe make a pot of coffee?  Sure, no problem...just be prepared.  While the 10 foot high concrete walls surrounding the house may provide some security they also serve to contain and seemingly amplify the vibrations of the motor as they ricochet from wall to wall.  

Apparently disappointed with it’s lifes purpose, the generator, while doing what it was created to do, does so furiously kicking and screaming all the way, literally.  It seems completely determined to make you sorry that you ever turned it on as it angrily shakes itself around in its little shed, seemingly hell-bent on destroying itself in a fit of violent rage.  At nights after it has been on for a few hours you finally grow accustomed to its deafening blast and it’s only after you turn it off that you realize again just how loud it is.  Ten thirty is the usual time for it to retire for the night and laying in bed, now cool under the constant blast of the fan 3 feet away you can hear it sputter into silence as it is starved of its fuel supply.  With no more electricity the fan now slows to a stop and silence creeps into the house.


In the now deafening silence of the hot African night, your ears ring as they adjust themselves the new found tranquility.  It’s a bittersweet moment because without the sweet flow of electrons coursing through the houses wires you begin to sweat again.  And without the sound of the generators pistons hurling themselves up and down inside their respective cylinders there comes other, less than comforting sounds into focus, such as the flies buzzing around the blackened room, flies that could be carrying malaria.  And so replacing the anxiety of the listening to the generator, comes the anxiety of contracting a life-threatening strain of parasites at some point throughout the night as you sleep.

"Man, I hope those flies are on the other side of the mosquito net" is usually the last thought on my mind as I drift into a fitful sleep that will carry me to the next Kalemie morning.  


Babies, goats and flies are what I woke up to today, the sounds of which came drifting in through the window serving as early-morning reminders of where I was.  Growing up in suburban Connecticut my upbringing was pretty removed from anything that would be characterized as an agrarian lifestyle.  That being the case, it took me quite a while after arriving in Congo to be able to decipher the difference between a screaming goat and a screaming child since both can sound remarkably similar.  The one this morning was definitely a child letting forth an unsettling, unholy, blood-curdling scream.  

Wow, something sounds seriously wrong with that kid

I try not to think about his or her condition, what he or she may be sick with and the life he or she is inheriting in this world as I wipe the sleep from my eyes and scan my defensive, white-netted fortress for winged, disease-carrying invaders.  

Like yesterday, there were to be no flights today.  No work to preoccupy me and help pass the day.  That being the case I had no real reason or motivation to get up at any particular time.  The only thing on my agenda for the day was to read, go to our cramped office at the UN base, maybe send a few emails and prepare for tomorrows flight that would take me back, finally, to my home in Goma.  Due to circumstances outside of my control its has been more than three long weeks since I’ve spent any significant amount of time there and I’ll be happy to return there within the next 36 hours.       

As I crawled out of bed, the rumbling crack of thunder rolling its way to town could be heard.  Oh sweet relief.  Thunder means wind and rain, which means cooler temperatures, a breeze through the house and the loud, pounding assault on the tin roof, drowning out the sound of the buzzing flies and unhappy infants.  Sure enough, minutes later it seemed like God himself moved over Kalemie, personally parted the skies and poured out an ocean of driving water, dispersing the dust hanging in the air while creating new smaller oceans and lakes in the red, uneven parched east congo ground.  In my little house I ran around opening up the windows and trying my best to create a cross-breeze in an attempt to usher out the stale, humid air that had collected overnight.  

"Today will probably be a little slow but at least it’s starting out ok and tomorrow I’m finally going home" I thought to myself as I enjoyed the refreshing air and sound of falling rain.  

While my time here hasn’t necessarily been bad, in fact I’ve really enjoyed certain aspects of it, I’m anxious to get back to Goma, to my bed, my space, and the 'normal' life that I've carved out for myself there.  If I had known that I would be here this long, I could have prepared mentally for it and I would’ve been ok.  But as it was, I had been told I would only be here 3, maybe 4 days.  It’s been 12 and in the course of those 12 days, I’ve been told I’m going back to Goma or somewhere else at least 18 times just to have them all change and continue to remain here.  The constant, “Ok you’re leaving tomorrow.  Oh wait, no you’re not.  Ok, the next day your leaving.  Nope, nevermind you’re staying for another 3 days.  Oh, cancel that, you’re leaving this afternoon.  Wait, just kidding you need to stay longer” has been testing the limits of my sanity and this constant state of limbo of ‘Well maybe I’m leaving tomorrow, but maybe I’m staying for another week.  Maybe I’ll never leave at all and die when my brain gets rattled to a pulp by that generator.’  No matter, tomorrow I’m leaving, I’m sure of it, I can feel it in my bones.  Tomorrow is the regular bi-weekly scheduled flight to Goma and I am going to be on it.

Not being particularly hungry and not wanting to listen to the generator any more than I had to, I skipped breakfast and passed much of the morning listening to the rain come down reading a book about a boy adrift in the Pacific ocean on a lifeboat with a bengal tiger after his ship sinks on it’s way from India to Canada.  Between the sound of the rain, the cool breeze going through the house and reading of this poor boys’ plight of having to survive not only being adrift on the vast ocean but also sharing his boat with a tiger, I was thoroughly engrossed when my phone rang.  It was Ilunga, the local congolese man employed by AirServ to help coordinate our flights out of Kalemie.  Being only semi-fluent in english he skipped the pleasantries and cut right the chase.  His exact words escape me now and all I remember hearing is “The Katanga shuttle is cancelled tomorrow, tomorrow no flights.”

My head dropped and I closed my eyes.  He continues on about sending the car over to the office for some errand or something, but I’m now only half listening as I contemplate what this means.  If there’s no flight tomorrow, that probably means another week here, at least another 5 days.  I can’t believe this.  I don’t even bother thinking that this must be a joke because I know it’s not.  I want to get out of here.  It’s been almost month since I’ve had the luxury of being somewhat settled, not living out of backpack, wondering where I’m going to eat my next meal.  If I had known from the start that I would be here this long, that would have been ok.  But this constant roller-coaster of maybe I’ll stay, maybe I’ll go is absolutely maddening.  

I hang up, begin to fume and feel sorry for myself.  It’s several minutes before I move and try to figure out what to do.  Might as well eat.  I go outside to ask the guards to turn ‘shaky’ on so that I can make some ramen and toast.  Mmmmmm.  

Hearing accounts of Kalemie from other pilots who have spent significant amounts of time here I had gathered several of what I can now say are very accurate descriptions:  (1) Kalemie is hot (2) Kalemie is pretty boring and (3) there isn’t much food there, so bring your own.  Luckily I had taken that last bit of information to heart and brought a couple of bags of various food items.  Though being here this long I was now down to a couple packages of ramen, a few granola bars, a box of chamomile tea and one precious jar of spaghetti sauce, not exactly a cornucopia of delights.  

A few days earlier I had ventured downtown in search of groceries, but returned home in vain.  There is nothing resembling a market in Kalemie, just way too many little stands hawking cell-phone time, charcoal, packages of bland ‘bisquits’ and cigarettes.  Almost anything else to be found was either unrecognizable or cost way more money that I was willing to spend.  There was one place, translated to english, called “Two Brothers” that several people had told me has the best selection of items for the ex-pat searching for comfort foods to remind him of home.  Upon arrival I was less than impressed.  A can of Pringles, although quite the find, comes with a $6 price tag and who knows how long they’ve been sitting there.  Peanut butter, while not as expensive, looks aged and questionable.  A jar of Nutella, a popular item here that I’ve come to love, sat high on the self and came with a $8 price tag.  I’m used to paying $4 in Goma for a jar that looks half as suspect and a lot less dusty than the ones I was staring at then.  Unwilling to part with my precious, few remaining dollars, I pass on everything and resolved to go without.  

Now the reality of my dwindling supply of food was coming into sharp focus.  Outside the generator continues to consume it’s supply of fuel while inside the tiny kitchen my little pot of water is coming to a boil.  Still fuming over the prospect of continuing to be stuck here for the indefinite future, I found myself daydreaming about stale Pringles while the thought of paying too much for some Nutella didn’t seem so bad.  

Removing some bread, now turned toast from the oven and adding the artificial flavored, sodium-laden “Prawn” flavored powder to my over-done noodles, I prepared to sit down for a meal that would likely be filling while equally likely to be unsatisfying.  However, before doing so I decided to scan the refrigerator one more time for anything else that might prove edible and could add a different element to my meal besides the already over-bearing and sole presence of salt and carbs.  Less than hopeful considering how long I’ve been here and convinced that there was nothing contained within the refrigerator that I didn’t already know about my eyes settled onto something hidden on a shelf in the back.  And there, radiating like the holy grail itself was a jar, nearly full of Nutella. 

Now, to even attempt a description of my excitement would be futile and I imagine bordering on the ridiculous to readers who have either (a) never even tasted Nutella or (b) not found a jar of such sublime, nurtient-free goodness under similar circumstances.  For those unfamiliar with Nutella, the best description is to simply imagine a big container of chocolate frosting.  Looking, tasting and probably having the same nurtitional content of that which one would find covering the top of a 10-year olds chocolate birthday cake, Nutella seems to be one of those things Europeans have deluded themselves into believing is a wholesome and nutritious breakfast commodity much like Americans have come to believe the same about batter fried in a pan, covered with coagulated butter and drenched in maple syrup.  Nevertheless, I was exuberant over my find and finally sat down to an eclectic lunch of coffee, ramen and Nutella-covered toast.  

And in the on-setting heat of the post-rain late morning, reading a story about civilization-ending asteroids in a National Geographic I found lying around the office, every bite took my frustrations of being in Kalemie another week just a little further away and in the overly caffeinated and sugary induced aftermath I found myself in, I thought a good way to pass the afternoon would be to write about the joys of life in Kalemie.  

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Eastern Congo Update

Ok, so here's the skinny on the last 24 hours. Yesterday afternoon I flew out of Nairobi. The way things were working out, I was going to have to sit in Nairobi for 5 hours, catch a flight to Kigali (which involves flying directly over Entebbe), sit for another 6 hours and then hopefully fly to Entebbe - but as I would find out, pilot uniforms and those chessy striped epaulets can be a real God-send and actually serve a purpose.

The night before I was still in Mombasa, sweating away and trying to find a way back to Nairobi. I ended up hopping on a bus and cruising 8 hours through the night, arriving at Jomo Kenyatta International a solid 6 hours before I actually had to check in. Stepping off the bus and into the first rays of light from the rising sun I headed straight for the Kenyan Airways ticketing office to see if I could change my destination direct to Entebbe and save myself from an entire day of sitting around various eastern African airports (because God knows I already do enough of that on a day-to-day basis). Tired, unshaven, pretty haggard looking and in my normal street clothes I was told that if I wanted to change my ticket to the 1pm flight to Entebbe I would buy a whole new ticket.


So I walked out of the ticketing office, grabbed a cup of coffee and some breakfast, then went and changed into my pilot uniform and marched back into the ticketing office with my chest out and fingers crossed that somebody new would be there - luckily there was. I showed the woman behind the counter my badge with "Humanitarian Aviation - Pilot" written on it.

"Have you been watching the news the last couple of days? Have you heard about the fighting in Goma?"

She nods slowly

"Well that's where I live and all my friends and co-workers are evacuating to Uganda. I need to get to Entebbe right now. You HAVE to get me that 1pm flight to Uganda" I tell her as sternly and with as much authority as I can.

Eyes wide and moving like she had a purpose she started typing away on her computer and making phone calls. No more than 5 mintues later I had a new ticket in hand marked "Humanitarian Aid Worker - No Fees - Entebbe" As I watched her at work, it took everything in me to keep a serious face and not start laughing - I can't believe this is actually working.

I'd like to take a moment now to rescind all the complaining and whining I've done over the past few months about the complete impracticality and total goofy appearance of being a bush pilot in the middle of Africa and wearing the standard white pilot shirt with 4 stripes on my shoulders. As I have slowly come to see, they actually can serve a purpose and unlike back home in the States, command a level of respect here that I never would have anticipated in a million years.

A few hours later I was touching down in Uganda, walked straight through customs and the lines of passengers waiting to get stamped into the country without so much as slowing down (man these uniforms are really something) and was back at the AirServ crew house in 10 minutes flat.
The crew house is where I find myself now and I suspect where I will be for some time to come.

Here's the update on Goma and the fighting in eastern DRC:

By Thursday a cease-fire had been announced. The crazy thing is, it appears to have been unilaterally declared by the invading rebel CNDP forces. Under the threat of the advancing 5,000 CNDP soliders, approximately 5,000 UN peackeepers and 20,000 FARDC Congolese soldiers simply melted away into the jungles and neighboring Rwanda. As far as I know, there are little to no Congolese soldiers left and only 800 UN soldiers remaining in Goma. Now a mere 7 km out and surrounding the city, Laruent Nkunda, the rebel leader and his soldiers are waiting.

While the fate of Goma and the future actions of the rebels are far from known, for the moment life is slowly and cautiously returning to normal. Rebels have allowed displaced people to return to their homes and aid workers to back to the city to continue their work. The really frustrating thing is that it seems that the majority of the killing, looting, rapes and overall destruction was caused not by the incoming rebels by rather by the retreating Congolese soldiers. This afternoon I got a text from a friend in Goma saying (and this is unconfirmed) that a town just an hours' drive to the north of Goma where she normally works is now part of a new country with a national anthem and everything - crazy!

So now we wait for the decision to return to Goma. Given the uncertainty of what could happen, the continued presence of the surrounding rebels and the tenuous cease-fire, I'm afraid we could be waiting for a while.