Bike Trip

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Taking the Long Way Home

Soo....lots to update about here as there have been a few changes going on the last month or two. Long story short, AirServ Goma is done. Not because anything has really changed, improved or that we're no longer needed, but because we lost our funding due to inane, 'humanitarian' world politics.

Things came to a pretty abrupt halt about 5 weeks ago. Everyone here knew things were looking bad but we all thought we had some time - a month, minimum - before we may have ceased operations. On a particular Saturday in early May I remember waking up and thinking that we probably had until the end of May. By breakfast we were told we were only going to fly until next weekend and by evening, sitting on the porch of the crew house in Entebbe I got the call to come back to Congo the next morning - Monday is the last flight. So a few of us packed up, went to the airport Sunday morning and flew back to Goma, my last flight in Africa. It was sobering flying that route across western Uganda, over lake Albert and Edward, Rutshuru, along smoking Nyiragongo and one last turn to final over Lake Kivu for RWY 36 into Goma.

And that was it. That night at the Lebanese restaurant in town we were officially informed that we were shutting down and to get in touch with Kim for a flight back to the states.

What a kick in the pants being told that you're losing your job, have to leave what has become your home, that you're being forced to go back somewhere that you don't want to go during a depressed economy that nobody's hiring in.

I wasn't ready to go back yet. I didn't want to be back in the States. Neither did Bruce. That night we stayed up talking about possibilities that could at least temporarily extend the adventure and avoid having to go back to the real world for a little while longer. We tossed out ideas of traveling for a couple of months in Africa, Southeast Asia and/or Europe. Eventually, somehow, we settled on biking (as in the pedaling, non-fossil fuel burning kind) across Canada. A couple of days later I had my bike and camping gear ordered and a train ticket from D.C. to Portland, Oregon.

The last couple of days were spent packing up and taking in as much of Congo and Africa as I could. A bunch of us took a boat across the lake to Bukavu for the last weekend to go see the mountain gorrillas. We spent a morning, three days before driving out of DRC for good, up on a 6,000' jungle mountain side sitting within arms reach of a family of gorillas, silver-back and all. It was indescribable.

Then back to the west. The land of superfluous SUV's, fast-food and grocery stores with enough food to feed a small village for a year. It was tough coming back but not as tough as I thought it would be. It would also be a quick visit to the U.S. Just a week back home before hopping on a train that would go across the country to begin the next adventure and long trek back home again.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Another reason why the UN is useless; CNDP goes to Goma Act II

Seven a.m. and I'm already tired.  I shouldn't be tired.  I went to bed at a reasonable hour last night and the usually heat-ridden Kalemie was unusually cool.  

My workday hasn’t even begun and already I’m behind schedule.  I hate being behind schedule.  It doesn’t really matter today.  I only have 5 legs and plenty of time to work with, but still, I hate landing at an airstrip later than the arbitrary time prescribed on the piece of paper that dictates what I am to do today.  

Finally taxi onto runway 06 thirty minutes after I should have, push the throttle forward, give the engine gauges a quick glance as my passengers and I accelerate down the asphalt and take to the air.  Beneath us Lake Taganyika with it’s sandy beaches and Kalemie with its mud huts slowly fall away.  A quick turn to the west to avoid the thunderstorm releasing its cache of rain just a few miles off the nose begins another normal day of flying in DRC.  

The legs between stops are pretty short today, all being no more than 30 minutes except the last one.  That last hop goes from Kasongo to Goma, a solid hour and 45 minutes, which I’m always less than excited about but I won’t complain.  I won’t complain because normally there’s a stop in Bukavu before ending the day in Goma.  Although it’s been getting a little better there lately, Bukavu is not exactly my favorite place, nor is it anyone else’s for that matter.  The fact that I won’t have to stop there means I might actually make it through a day of flying without losing my cool and getting into a knock-down, drag-out with the R.V.A. over passenger fees, inflated exchange rates, the condition of my U.S. greenbacks, the usual attempted extortions and all around general emotional stress.  This makes me happy.  

Leveling off at 12,500 ft on the backside of the day with Nyunzu, Kabalo, Kongolo and Kasongo behind me I hit the auto-pilot, do all the paperwork I can and let my mind drift while watching the little airplane track north on the magenta line of the GPS and waiting for the ETE to reach 00:00.  To the drone of the engine my mind slowly wanders to the landing at Moba yesterday.  I’m still pissed about that.  Freaking U.N.  

I like going to Moba.  Actually I love going to Moba.  Moba is beautiful.  Sitting quietly on the southern shores of Tanganyika, hemmed in tightly by dramatic, sharply rising terrain Moba could almost be described as idyllic.  It’s dirt freaking poor as all villages in DRC are but every time I go there I find myself wistfully thinking that I’m going to spend my next R&R here.  I have no idea where one could stay in Moba and there’s absolutely nothing to do there but sometime down the road I want to spend a couple of days there.  The mornings would be filled playing soccer with kids, afternoons wandering along the narrow, rocky beaches or maybe walking a couple kilometers across the flat, palm tree scattered plains to the hills and hike to their rocky, outcropped tops.  Nights would be dedicated to laying out and looking at the stars.  

Maybe I could create some mechanical problem there sometime, I'm great at coming up realistic stories:

“Hello Pierre?  Hey this is Josh.  Yeah I just landed in Moba and the weirdest thing happened.  I left the plane for a minute and when I came back the engine cowling was open and my battery was missing.  Crazy right?  So if you could send a new battery down that’d be great.  Oh, but there’s ummm....locusts....swarms and swarms of locusts here so, uhhh....don’t try to send a plane with it for a few days.  I’m sure they’ll be gone soon.  Great thanks.  Oh and I’ll be down on the beach with my phone turned off in case you try to get in touch with me.”

It’s just really cool being there, if only for 20 minutes while you drop off or pickup the usual load of passengers or cargo.  Not more than a stone throws’ away from where you park the plane are mud huts and their tawny grass roofs.  There’s always a crowd of onlookers, mostly children, who line the edge of the runway and look wide-eyed at the mzungu and his airplane slowing to a stop and casually hopping out.  


“Jambo” 80 or so voices all reply in perfect unison followed by the predictable held out hands and sad puppy eyes.  

If I have any extra, a few lucky kids will a get a package of cookies or a juice box, running off the instant it’s in their hands, squealing wildly to brag to their friends what they got.  

That didn’t happen yesterday.  I was too pissed.  As I was approaching Moba from the northwest there was a UN helicopter coming in to land as well.  He was lower and a mile or two closer than I was so he would be landing first.  We crossed paths going in opposite directions as we both overflew the airport in the normal perfunctory procedure of scanning the strip for condition and obstacles prior to swinging around to set up to land.  There was a thin scattered layer of clouds between me and the dirt strip but the runway looked clear and at the moment I was more interested in keeping tabs on the helo.  The pilots were Russian, betrayed by their thick roosky accents and curt, vague and generally unhelpful position reports.  

Comfortable with the amount of time and distance I had given them and certain that they were on the ground I came around on a long final, slowed the plane down, gave everything one last look and, content with how the airplane was configured, focused on the approach to landing.  On short final crossing the threshold I could see on the other end of the runway what looked like a ditch or...something.  That’s weird.  I was just here a couple of days ago and don’t remember seeing that there before.  I tried to get a better look but couldn’t as I concentrated on the touchdown.  As the plane came into contact with the dirt and gravel, throttle going into Beta and gently coming on the brakes the supposed ditch came into focus.  That’s not a ditch, those are men.  That’s a lot of men.  That’s a lot of men lined up going down the length of the freaking runway.  

Now, I know they saw me.  It’d be pretty hard not see or at least hear a Caravan circling overhead, lining up and touching down.  People walking on or across a runway in Congo is a very normal, daily occurrence, in fact it seems to be the case more often than not.  You see them, they see you and they get out of way, it’s normally pretty simple.  The thought of going around never occured to me - they would, of course, move. Besides at this point it was too late to go around and to deviate from the centerline would mean going off into a deep ditch and the tall grass.  But these genius’s apparently thought it would be a good idea to wait as long as possible before clearing out of the way.  I looked on in horror at the whites of their saucer-plate wide eyes as they scattered and ran clear as I coasted past not more than a couple meters from several of them.

Those guys are soldiers.  Blue helmets to be specific, UN peackeepers.  

As I came to a stop, seething at the thought of having narrowly missed these guys my mind was desperately trying to provide an answer as to why these morons had been standing in a huge group on my runway.  As I shutdown the ‘vans engine I glanced over my shoulder and watched them slowly form up again on the runway.  

You’ve got to be kidding me  

I stared on in disbelief as well over 200 armed men gathered back onto the runway and formed up in lines at attention while some pot-bellied commander waited for them to finish while looking in my direction.  

I jumped out of the plane, my eyes fixed on the guy who appeared to be in charge and fought every fiber in my body that desperately wanted to storm over and berate him about whose brilliant idea it was to muster the troops for inspection on A FREAKING RUNWAY particularly when SOMEBODY IS TRYING TO LAND!!!

I stood there, fists clenched, trying to ignore the faint, calm voice in my head, pleading me not to go over there and make a scene.  

They have guns, it said

“What are they going to do, shoot me?”

They have egos to protect

“Those egos need to be taken down a notch or two”

Do you really think anyone who assembles a large mass of men on a runway is going to  listen to reason?


Reluctantly I gave in to it, shot the officer one last dirty look and turned around to find my passengers.  Soon everybody was onboard and the soldiers, much to my dismay, were breaking up.  I was really hoping to force them off the runway again with my take off but it wasn’t meant to be.  I started up the engine, taxied into position and was off again.  

Back on the ramp in Goma waiting for the perpetually slow fuel truck to show up I watched the bustling activity go on around me.  As there had been yesterday, there were lots of soldiers standing around and loading up onto more Russian piloted aircraft.  Except this these soldiers weren’t UN, they were Congolese.  

“Papi, what’s going on?  Where are all these soldiers going?”

“They are going to Walikale.  They go to fight the Hutus”  

“Serious?  Are they FARDC (the official Conoglese Army)?”

“Some are, but ones with better uniforms, they are CNDP”

“WHAT!?  Those are CNDP? What are they doing here with FARDC?”

“They fight together now against the Hutu’s.  Eh, I don’t know.  It’s very complicated.”

For anyone not up on their Congolese current events/rebel army activity, the CNDP has been for the past +10 years the largest, most organized, and disciplined rebel army in the eastern Congo/North Kivu province.  These were the dudes who last November decided to invade Goma, causing a widespread evacuation of the international aid community based in Goma, the displacement of up to several hundred thousand people and a massive humanitarian crisis.

Now, 3 months later, apparently their presence in Goma is a non-event and have evidently joined up with the national army, simply adding another layer of complexity to an already overly complicated and turbulent area.  

The fuel truck eventually showed up, as did usual dust-covered, blue AirServ Toyota “Troopie” to bring me back to the house.  I had started off this morning tired and I was even more so now.  Throwing my bags in the back, I crawled onto one of the dirty bench seats in back and laid down as the driver began our trek back to Base 4.  Much like one of those old, rickety, wooden rollercoasters, within minutes my head, neck and back started to hurt and I begin to wonder why I had voluntarily come on this ride, swearing never to do it again if I survived the violent, ground-induced turbulence as we bounced along the craggy roads of Goma.  Pulling out my iPod and throwing my hat over my face I closed my eyes, attempted to shut out the world and forget, at least for a few minutes, where on earth I was.    

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.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fast forward 8 weeks - A new war in Congo?

The internet 'cafe' I find myself in is hot, though not as hot as the streets just beyond its doors. At the moment, the refuge the cafe provides from the salty, humid coastal air is a welcome relief. I'm a sweaty, (and I assume) smelly mess right now, as I have been for the past couple of days and will continue to be for at least another day or two. The coastal hotel I stayed at for the last two nights on Diani beach had no fresh water - that meant showering witht the sea-salt water that ran through it's pipes and the night before had been spent on the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa, which meant no shower either. But for now, cleanliness is pretty much the least of my concerns...
This is wasn't exactly how I imagined doing this blog. Even though I've been in Africa for 2 months now, I'm way behind on my posts and have been trying to catch up, chronologically, to the present. The events of the past 4 days has changed all that.
Since the end of August I've been living in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, flying humanitarian missions and adjusting to life in central Africa. Six days ago, I left for my first R&R and headed to Kenya for a week of backpaking, determined to make it to the Indian ocean to do some relaxing and snorkeling. I was having a good time and things were going smoothly until I got to the coastal city of Mombasa Tuesday morning. It was in Mombasa, after getting off the overnight train, that I checked my email for the first time in a couple of days and recieved some startling news. A friend had emailed me saying there had been fighting in Goma. Apparently the rebels that reside just north of Goma in the mountains that make up the border between Rwanda and Congo had finally fulfilled the threats they have been making for the past few weeks and began their offensive on Goma. The U.N. peacekeepers had engaged them in order to hold on to the city but as far as I can tell, they have had mixed success. Civilians, in response to the fighting, or in their eyes, the lack of security that the UN provides, began rioting against the UN and have started fleeing the city. That was Monday.
As of today, the state of security, rebel advancement and who is actually in control of the city is unclear to me. Civilians, along with Congolese soldiers have been evacuating by the thousands. All of my colleagues have evacuated as well and are now scattered throughout other bases in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. At the moment, my instructions are to fly tomorrow, as scheduled, from Nairobi to Kigali in central Rwanda. One of our planes may be arriving there tomorrow evening and so I may stay with it to help crew it or I may get moved on to Etebbe, Uganda to wait things out.
That is the extent of what I know right now. As things progress and I get more information, I'll try to post it here. Until then, pray for things to settle down and some kind of cease-fire to be achieved.

Monday's Article -

Thursdays article -

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Into Africa

                             ...when first
                             I came among these hills...
                             I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
                            Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
                            Wherever nature led: more like a man
                            Flying from something that he dreads, than one
                            Who sought the thing he loved.
                            ...I cannot paint
                            What then I was.  The sounding cataract
                            Haunted me like a passion.
                                                      -William Wordsworth

Leaning forward against my seatbelt to peer out the small, plastic window, I struggle to catch a glimpse of the land before touchdown. The effort to adjust my eyes from the bright fluorescent cabin lights of the large Airbus to the infinite blackness outside proves nearly impossible. The only thing to be seen is the turbulent ocean of air and condensed moisture churning ominously and is visible only when the lightening scatters its fractious beauty throughout the dark and formless clouds. Then, just after giving up the effort, we break through the cloud layer that had separated us from contact with the ground, the same one, though now on the opposite side, that obstructs our view of the moon and stars.  Small ground fires and the orange lights of Entebbe come into focus and within minutes we are touching down and coming to a slow stop at our gate. 


Just five days ago I was in Alaska, a 10-hour difference in time and I imagine, just a slight deviation geographically and culturally from where I now find myself.  Thus far the trip over here has gone surprisingly well. Despite my occupation, I still find myself marveling that for the right price and a little patience to endure over 14 hours in the air, one can skip from North America to Europe to East Africa in about 1 day. 

Stepping off the plane at Entebbe International and onto African soil, a first among many more to come for me, I find myself almost dizzy with excitement and awe.  After spending the last 30 hours in airport terminals and passenger jets breathing in their stale, recycled air, walking outside and being hit by the warm and balmy air is a bit of a shock.  Palms sway in the humid breeze, a breeze that carries with it the smell of Lake Victoria which lies not even a mile away.

A short, thin Ugandan man, bearing a smile and blue shirt that reads 'AirServ International' approaches and introduces himself. His name is Godfrey and he tells me that he's my ride. Just to make sure I ask to see some kind of identification which he gladly produces but I'm too tired to give it any sort of thorough examination. After a few pleasantries and collecting my 2 checked-bags we hop into a old, run-down van bearing the same name as his shirt. With Godfrey driving from the front right seat, myself in the left, the sights of Entebbe rush past my open window and I relish the feeling of being on the ground once again. Ten minutes later the two of us pull through the gates of the AirServ crew house.

Despite the fact that most of our immediate neighbors live in shanty houses held timidly together by decrepit wooden planks, their walls consisting of tarps and roofs of rotting tin sheeting, the neighborhood is, relatively speaking, decent. Not more than a mile down the road is the mansion (one of many I'm told) that houses the Ugandan President. Later the next day, a gaunt-looking shopkeeper tells me through a toothless grin that it is referred to comically as "The White House".

A four bedroom, single-story house enclosed by walls with a heavy metal gate dictating who enters and who leaves, the AirServ-Entebbe house is surprisingly nice. A guard stands on constant watch as well as a worn-out looking German shepherd named Jill. Jill's purpose seems to serve more as companionship to the guard and the constant ebb and flow of inhabitants rather than as any security measure since she is much more likely to approach you looking for a belly-rub and food than to chase away any would-be trespassers. Upon arrival I'm greeted by Patrick and Cos, two other AirServ pilots. Both are here for several days for aircraft maintenance before splitting off and departing to Johannesberg and Nairobi respectively. So far things have gone relatively well and apparently I should consider myself lucky since talking to my two new co-workers, I am told of how often flights here are delayed, baggage gets lost and people arrive at airports to find no one is there to pick them up.

Despite the fact that I've been up for more than 34 hours straight I end up on the back of a "boda-boda", a small 200cc (at best) motorcycle for hire screaming down the dark, unlit Entebbe streets in search of food with the other two. Our first stop is Four Turkey's to gauge tonight's nightlife. It's an experience that I'm sure will prove impossible to forget. We're there for no more than 20 minutes, yet 19 of those minutes are consumed with literally pushing away the incredibly persistent women who are looking for 'work' that night while insisting that we aren't interested. The conversation becomes borderline impossible with their constant hovering presence and so deciding it's not worth the hassle we move on.

Four Points is the next destination. An outdoor restaurant popular among the transiting AirSev pilots, it's a quiet locale with an extensive and varied menu, but particularly good Indian food. I still have a million unanswered questions about AirServ so much of the time is passed trying to get a sense of what to expect from life in Goma and the job in general.

Finally back to the house. I'm so tired I lay down on my bed, telling myself it will only be for a minute. Four hours later and still very dark out, I wake up, fully clothed with my legs still hanging off the bed and my mosquito net still up. Trying to get a few more hours sleep proves impossible between the jet-lag and roosters doing their normal pre-dawn routine and I drift in and out of sleep in short, unsatisfying fits. When I do wake up for the last time around 7am the very first thing my eyes happen to focus on strikes panic into me. As clear as day, at the opposite end of the bed, fixed to the top of my mosquito net and clearly on the wrong side is one lonely tetsi fly.

"Great, I've been here less than 12 hours and I probably already have malaria."

I make sure he dies a quick death but that does little to allay the sick feeling in my stomach about the prospect of getting malaria. I'm sure I'm fine, but I've heard and read plenty of horror stories about what is entailed when ones contracts malaria. Even though I've been assuming that I'll get it at some point (it seems everyone who comes here does), I don't think I'm ready for it yet. Maybe after a few months I'll be up for the challenge.

There are plenty of other firsts and excitement during the first couple of days in Africa:  a few of us went to Kampala one night and I thought I was going to die (or at least get horribly maimed - getting used to public transportation would take some adjustment I quickly discovered); getting lost late one night on the dark streets of Entebbe, wandering around for almost an hour trying to find the AirServ house, asking locals for directions to the only close landmark that I knew: a daycare center not far from the house with the creepy name "KissyFur"; eating at the Imperial Botanical Gardens on the shores of Lake Victoria with monkeys hovering in the trees above and around the table waiting for scraps of food or a thoughtless diner to not pay proper attention to his plate; and plenty of sleepless nights, tossing and turning, listening to thunderstorms pass through the middle of the night followed by the sound of goats and chickens, insistent on reminding everyone of the arrival of morning, as if it might be missed.  

But mostly I was wrapped up in my own thoughts, trying to take it all in, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Saturday's flight that would take me to my new home, to Goma, to Congo, to see what kind of life was awaiting me there. Saturday arrived soon enough, and I realized that all the reading and pictures and questions would prove useless to prepare me for the initial shock of stepping off the plane and setting foot there for the first time.  

Monday, August 25, 2008

Alaska Recap

       Just returned from Alaska.  Overall the trip was a lot of fun.  The landscape was nothing short of spectacular and I’m so grateful for having had the opportunity to go there, but leaving your little sister behind, knowing you’re going to be 10,000 miles apart and having no idea when you will see her again pretty much sucks.  

       The highlight, at least for me, was the couple of days spent in Denali National Park.  It wasn’t nearly enough time; at least a month would be needed to even begin to do it justice, but even just the few days we spent camping there and exploring the interior of the park were incredible.  

       The most interesting part was trying to get back to Anchorage from Denali.  We left the park around noon driving south on Route 3, the only direct road between Denali and Anchorage.  Hannah and I had picked up two hitchhikers who were trying to make it to the airport in Anchorage to catch their flight back to New York after having spent 6 weeks hitchhiking around the state.  They were cutting it really close to their departure time, but we felt confident that we could get them there in time.  

       After thirty minutes we approached a construction worker in the road who was bringing traffic to a halt.  Coming to a stop, we watched as the car in front of us carried on a muted exchange with him, then proceeded to pull a U-turn and return in the direction we were all coming from.  


We pull up next and ask what’s going on.  

“There’s been an accident” he explains,

“A natural gas tanker rolled just down the road” 


“The road will be closed for 30 to 40...” 

minutes, please God, let him say minutes...



 “You’re going to have to turn around, go through Fairbanks and hook around on Route 2”  

That’s 15 hours minimum, as opposed to the 4 hours we were planning on.  Unbelievable.  

       We pull a U-turn and start back up the road trying to figure out what we’re going to do.  Drive it?  Go back to Denali for another day or two?  There’s GOT to be another way.  Either way, the two guys in the back seat  have officially missed their flight.  We pull out the map and discover one road that we could take that would allow us to skip having to go all the way up to Fairbanks.  

New ETE for Anchorage: 10 hours

  After a quick stop at one of the gas stations that are so few and far between on the road, we turn East onto the Denali highway.  “Ok” we’re thinking, “so this is going to take a little longer than expected, but we’ll get to see a lot more of Alaska this way.  Things could be worse”  

They sure can

After 10 minutes down the ‘highway’ the pavement stops and becomes gravel.  

“This can’t possibly be gravel for the next 150 miles” 

Oh yes it can

       For the next 3+ hours we proceed to speed along twists and turns on the Denali highway taking in the incredible scenery.  At least I assume it was incredible.  Bouncing and sliding along the ‘highway’ everything becomes a little blurred, your back starts to hurt and you’re more than a little preoccupied with the thought “Please don’t get a flat tire, please don’t get a flat tire, we are SO screwed if we get a flat out here”  Over the course of the 150 mile stretch of road we see only a handful of cars and there's literally a whooping two places to stop, all of which not-surprisingly have large signs anxiously proclaiming “Tire repairs performed here!!!”  

       We made it across barren landscape, car and tires intact, though what used to be a black Camry is now definitely a brown Camry.  

Only 7 more hours to go

       The rest of the trip goes relatively smoothly.  Down through Gakona, Glennallen, Palmer, and the now (unfortunately) famous Wasilla.  After a while it’s almost difficult to stave off the creeping indifference to the beauty of the mountains, rivers and glaciers since there appears to be no end to them.  Finally, descend back into Anchorage.  We drop our traveling companions off at the airport, wish them better luck on their flight home than we had on the drive and say goodbye.  The rest is details.  

  Moved Hannah into her dorm and we went shopping WAY too much to outfit her with all the typical college-dorm paraphernalia.  There was a day-long orientation for students and parents at UAA.  I was a bit unsure of what was expected of me, though figuring I was there on my parents behalf, when the large group of student and parents split up I found myself sitting in on the parent sessions and on the receiving end of some very odd and perplexed looks.  The comments I got ranged from the kind:

 “Umm, aren’t you supposed to be in the other room with the other students?” 

To the confrontational:

 “You have leave right now, you can’t be here in this meeting, this is for parents only!”  

       Though they probably never fully believed me, the other parents did come to accept the presence of a 26 year-old who was apparently claiming to have an 18 year-old daughter that he was dropping off for her first year at college...They grow so quick...

  In the end I actually came back home to Connecticut one day earlier than planned because as time went on I realized how much I still had to do to get ready and pack for Africa and my planned one day layover back home just wasn’t going to be enough.  A painful good-bye ensued at the airport curb followed by a sprint to the gate since I had been unable to pry myself from her any sooner than I absolutely had to.  

       The thought of having to get on another flight in 2 days, this one destined to traverse one ocean and two continents is incredibly exciting but a little sad too.  I don’t expect the coming good-byes to be any easier but they’re inevitable and are a necessary part along the coming journey.