Monday, April 25, 2011

Senghor's house

Sali Portugal, Senegal
24 April 2011

One of my favorite things about Senegal is that we get both Muslim and Christian holidays. My Christian friend from Joal invited us over for a family celebration with dozens of kids and great food. I enjoyed talking to the elders and learning about his dads career in the Senegalese Navy and visiting europe. Afterwards we walked over to Leopoldo Senghor's (the first President of Senegal) house and got a tour of the place where he was raised. The guide had lots of interesting stories like how his dad prophesied his rise to international fame when he first saw his mom (he told his buddy that even though she was ugly she would bear him a son who would take his name to all the world).

Later that evening we toured the seashell island of Fadiouth and my friend dispelled all the untruths that my previous guide had told me. For example, the large baobab in the center of the island was not used as a human sacrificial alter. Be careful of your guides, many are just telling stories they think tourists want to hear. As we climbed the dirty-white seashell cemetery the sun set over the mangroves and the golden light reflected in the puddles as the tide went out. Loud music played in the background as the crowds on the shore swayed to the beat of the tambour. We drove back to our hotel in Saly in the dark, dodging cows and people on the pitch-black road.

Leaving Kinshasa

17-19 April 2011

Getting home to Dakar took me on a tour of Africa. Getting out of the Kinshasa airport wasn't that bad- our checked bags were hand searched at two different points, I got wanded a couple times, and we spent a couple hours sweating waiting for the plane. Luckily I got to Nairobi without any problem and the shuttle from the Tribe hotel was waiting for me. I agree with the website "Stuff Expat Aid Workers like" it's great to see someone holding a sign with your name on it when you fly into an airport (

The Tribe hotel was great- nice people, beautiful hotel, great food. The room was great- it even had an electric hot water kettle. Of the three hotels I have used in Nairobi (also stayed at the Hilton and Windsor), in my opinion the Tribe is the best. Just take a cab for $20 instead of the $40 airport shuttle.

The next morning when I got to the airport in Nairobi to catch my flight to Dakar I was surprised to get a confused look from the check-in agent. He said my flight was cancelled last week (I should have checked the flight status so it was my fault, according to him) and the next flight was in two days. Luckily the sales office was able to get me on a flight back to Dakar thru Johannesburg on South African. So I flew Kenyan to Jo'burg, waited for five hours, then caught an eight hour flight on SAA to Dakar, arriving around 1am. At least I got lots of airline miles- I should be able to get a free flight to Hawaii after all this travel in Africa.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Kinshasa, DRC
16 April 2011

The highlight of the day: Bonobos!
We got up early and fought traffic for nearly two hours to Lola ya bonobo ( at the Petites Chutes de la Lukaya. The waterfall is located on a rutted 4x4 track in the hills outside of Kinshasa and is home to scores of Bonobos, small monkeys very similar to chimpanzees. Most of the Bonobos were rescued from hunters or markets and now spend their time wandering around their large fenced enclosures hucking mud at the curators and following around tourists. There is also a separate enclosure complete with human surrogate mothers for the baby Bonobos. We saw at least two dozen Bonobos of all ages as we took the guided tour around the compounds. It was interesting to watch them as they walked along the fence with us. When we reached the end of a compound they would scream and another group of monkeys would run out of the bush and meet the group at the start of the next fence and keep us company. Park entry was only $5 USD, cheaper than parking (with the mandatory car wash). After the tour we had a super overpriced lunch ($34 USD) next to the waterfall and watched some tourists frolic in the dirty brown water.

Getting back to Kinshasa traffic was hell. We got caught on a narrow market street with trucks parked facing both directions and wound up stuck surrounded by irate Congolese. We were stopped behind four other cars and had several more behind us, but our car was soon encircled by people banging on our car and telling us to back up or get out of the way- but we couldn't move. We tried to tell them the cars around us had to move so we could move, but they only got angrier and started pounding on the windshield. Eventually (15 minutes later) a driver returned to car that was blocking the way ahead of us and traffic started to move again. The mob got back in their cars and trucks and started driving as well, much to our relief.

Ever the glutton for punishment we drove straight to a market where we were immediately surrounded again by vendors pushing bracelets, necklaces, carved items, and other junk while my friend tried to negotiate a reasonable price for a Tintin in Congo painting. The vendor refused to go below $15 each and we ended up walking away empty handed but severely harassed. Later we had some antelope and ostrich as a farewell dinner and got ready to leave DRC.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Kinshasa, DRC
15 April 2011

The morning began with a sob story from the T-Shirt guy. My friend who was showing us around Kisangani has a guy who makes custom t-shirts with whatever my friend wants written on them for $15 each. Last night the T-Shirt guy delivered the t-shirts and had a friend along with him who sold a couple masks and other trinkets. Turns out the friend took all the money from the shirts after they left and the following morning the T-Shirt guy was back demanding to be paid again.

Next up demanding money was the car rental guy who asked for an extra days car rental since he was driving us to the airport, plus $100 for gas money, even though the truck was delivered on empty. The demands for extra money began as it was time to leave for the airport and they refused to move until we paid, making us late for our flight.

Once we were done negotiating we started on our way to the airport and ran into a local military friend who went to the soccer game with us the previous day. He offered to come with us in case we ran into any problems, and he was key in getting us onto the UN airport for our flight home. A roadblock was set up outside the airport and security was refusing to allow entry without payment and cars were backed up at least a quarter mile. The private security and then heavily armed military guarding the base and pushing mob yelling in Swahili and Lingala at the gate reminded me of movies I had seen of people cut off just out of the reach of safety. I was very glad when our new friend parted the intense crowd for us and got us on the base.

It was great to get another free UN flight, but this time instead of a Spanish flown 737-200 we got the chance to fly on an old Russian Antonov-24 twin turboprop airplane. The Antonov-24 was first introduced in 1959 and this plane looked like it had passed through many years of hard service. I was relieved when the cramped rusty old plane rolled to a stop in Kinshasa four hours later, especially when I saw the bald tires had worn through a layer of strings. At least the flight was free.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Kisangani Soccer

Kisangani, DRC
14 April 2011

Most of my crew was worn out after a late night at the Texas A&M house and cruising a couple bars until the early hours of the morning so we took it easy today. We toured the UN logistics base on the river, then drove downstream and ate lunch at a restaurant in a bamboo forest overlooking the river. The food was outstanding, with fresh beef imported from South Africa, and monkeys in the trees provided the entertainment.

The main event for the day was soccer match featuring the local military team against a civilian team from another city. Since it was a Thursday afternoon the crowds were light but there were lots of armed Soldiers and police to keep order. The visitors won with the only score of the match but whenever the crowd got rowdy security would beat them with long sticks from their position on the walls.

After dinner groups of vendors tracked us down at our hotel to sell us all kinds of tourist crap- swagger sticks, carved monkeys, masks, paintings, and so on. Surprisingly they knew where we were staying and that we were leaving in the morning. But in our three days here we had seen less than a dozen other muzungos so I reckon we weren't that hard to find.

Texas Fish Ponds

Kisangani, DRC
13 April 2011

It's the rainy season in the parts of DRC south of the equator and thankfully the temperatures are lower when it rains. Wednesday started off cool with light showers as we toured the fish farm and agricultural project operated by Texas A&M. The project was designed to feed a nearby Congolese military base of approximately 800 to 1000 Soldiers and allow them to be self sufficient. 43 fish ponds are located on and around the base and many are linked together through a gravity fed system that contain about 40,000 tilapia and African catfish. The fish ponds provide 800 fish (400 kg) per week and the surrounding hills are project fields of rice, cassava, and a variety of legumes. Unfortunately the contract for the project is set to expire in September and the project managers haven't heard if the contract will be renewed. The project manager chose fish as his protein source in designing the project as it it easier to sustain and harder to steal when the project is terminated. He said cattle are easy to steal and relocate, but fish ponds will continue to reproduce as it's hard to catch all the fish and they should be productive for the next ten years (restocking and adding nutrients and vitamins would help maintain the genetic pool).

In the afternoon we visited the market in Kisangani and got hassled by people yelling "Muzungo!" and "Mondele!" (roughly translated as "white guys") and others calling after us "tiki tiki tiki" (no translation but they would say it after we walked by without buying anything). The market had everything- there was a car part section, bicycle section, food, clothing, furniture, luggage and so on, sold from little wooden stalls roughly two meters wide and with a broken one meter wide path between booths.

Later we ended up hanging out at the Texas A&M house with their crew, a couple UN officials, and some locals for a good old Texas barbecue. Power kept dropping though out the night and eventually we found some candles (a general lack of fuel in the region negated running the generator) to eat by candlelight. One old Congo hand asked "What did they use for light in the Congo before candles?" The answer: "electricity."

Easternish/Central DRC

Kisangani, DRC
12 April 2011

It seems like it rains every time I get on a plane in the DRC. This morning when we set out for the airport at 0500 the roads were already a good foot deep and in a couple places the roads had a current and rapids marked the potholes in the street. One of my friends scored seats on a MONUSCO flight so we were flying for free to Kisangani. The line was chaotic to register for the flight and the babel from the UN workers gave way to English as the universal language to share information. They tried to enforce order on the line but gave up and handled the check-in like in any other African airport as the crowd pressed to the front. A couple flights were scheduled for the morning but one was canceled due to the weather and most were delayed several hours, including ours to Kisangani. The flight was only a third full and we had plenty of space to stretch out on the Boeing 737-200 for the three hour flight (drink service by the Spanish UN crew included).

On the ground in Kisangani we were met by a western cowboy wearing a five-gallon hat who drove us into town and past the agricultural project and fish ponds he was managing for Texas A&M. After checking into our hotel we set out to explore the town and ended up eating stewed goat over rice in a local restaurant then hanging out at the Greek Cultural Center. For fun later we took moto-taxis across town and hung out with some other locals. UN and many other lettered vehicles were constantly circulating through town but most of the Bangladeshi and Uruguayan blue hats were restricted to their bases and not able hang out in town like us. It seems pretty safe here, much nicer than Kinshasa, so it seems odd that the UN troops think they need to stay cloistered behind concertina wire, high walls, and machine guns in guard posts.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Republic of Congo

Republic of Congo
7-10 April 2011

It rained all night and even though it slackened in the morning a constant drizzle accompanied us as our 4x4 waded axle deep through the streets of Kinshasa. At the port we discovered that our speedboats were trapped in their berths by the piles of debris washed downstream by the heavy rains. In the end we found a middleman who arranged a crossing for us for $250 on a smaller boat with a braver pilot. It took about 15 minutes to cross the wide muddy waters as the pilot deftly guided us around floating islands of logs and bushes to the Republic of Congo.

On the shore we were met my Soldiers and customs officials who guarded us until our passports were stamped and we were allowed to enter the much cleaner and relaxed of the two Congos. In Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, the streets were cleaner, traffic flowed better and overall it was less chaotic. It was as if the palpable veil of tension in Kinshasa had been lifted and we could breathe easier. We didn't spend to much time exploring the city before we headed to the airport to catch a Trans Air Congo (TAC) flight to Pointe Noire. We boarded the plane on time, but then the flight sat on the tarmac for an hour as we waited for thunderstorms passing through the area to clear. It was an old plane, but packed to the rafters with people and bags in a first come, first served seating arrangement resulting in a mad scramble to load first and get the best seats. Fortunately an hour later were we landing in Pointe Noire on the Atlantic coast of Congo.

We checked into the swank Atlantic Palace Hotel in the center of downtown located on the main strip between the posh offices of oil magnates bike ENI and Total. Pointe Noire is a resort and oil town with a large expat and tourist population with flights from Europe that bypass the Congolese capital cities. The first place we headed after the hotel was La Pyramide, a surf restaurant/club that played Jack Johnson from a tiki bar that overlooked a decent beach break. Unfortunately the dude that took care of the surfboards couldn't be found so I couldn't get wet.

The next morning I ran along the coast and the waves were still knee to waist high but the board rental dude was still MIA. I couldn't find any other places that rented surfboards so we ended up just touring the city. In the port we watched a Belgian Navy Ship attempt to dock at the pier but it smashed a container ship berthed nearby on its approach. Eventually the Belgians got their ship parked and they were met by a Congolese Navy band and ceremonial platoon of Soldiers carrying rifles and wearing red pompoms on their berets. In the afternoon I headed back to la Pyramide and the board dude was there but there were no waves! In the end we ended up hanging out with a Lufthansa aircrew and bodysurfing in the weak crumbly waves.

On our final day in Pointe Noire a morning surf check revealed no more waves. It had gone completely flat. The airport and flight back on Trans Air Congo provided the fun for the day. 300 people packed the tiny airport, each one in line practically with their arms around the person in front of them to stop people from cutting in line. If you left 3 inches of space between you and the person in front of you at least one person would try to slip into the gap. By the time I finished checking the bags and getting our tickets my clothes were soaked with sweat and I drank a 1.5 liter bottle of water to rehydrate.
About 30 mins later the flight boarded and surprisingly we departed on time and were on the ground in Brazzaville. Trans Air Congo, lovingly known as TAC, is my least favorite of all African Airlines thanks to the fight to get a seat (aka open seating), poor service (a tiny 2oz cup of Coke or Fanta only for the inflight service), crumbling plane (broken filthy seats, nonfunctional seat belts), and bouncing one-wheeled landings.

On the ground (the passengers broke into applause after surviving the landing) we had to go through customs and passport control even though it was a domestic flight since we were non-Africans before we could get to the mele of baggage claim. Finally with our bags collected we made our way through the deserted streets of downtown Brazzaville to the Adonis Hotel for the night. I was surprised at how quiet the city was on the weekend and we wandered around without getting hassled by any vendors or beggars. We visited the de Braza museum/mausoleum which celebrates the life of the Pierre de Braza who negotiated the treaty for the creation of the Republic of Congo and spent a good portion of his life exploring the territory that he claimed for France. In the basement of the marble walled building Me de Braza is entombed with his family. I recommend staying away from the walls if you visit as two marble plates fell off the wall and nearly brained one of my friends. The museum director came running down the stairs when he heard the crash and was relieved to see no one was hurt. He tried to calm us by saying that "these things happen from time to time" and quickly went about replacing the thick panels.

We ate dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Congo River and watched the lights across the way in Kinshasa. From a distance the city was nice and I was surprised to see the power stayed on though dinner. After dinner I returned to the hotel while my traveling companions went to the Boom Boom and No Stress clubs trolling for prostitutes (catch and release of course).

The next morning we packed up our bags and made our way to the port for the boat ride back to Kinshasa. This time the speedboat crossed the wide brown river in three minutes but clearing customs on both sides took ten times longer on each side.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

DRC Part I

DRC Part I
3-6 April 2011

Sunday afternoon I caught the plane from Dakar to Kinshasa via Nairobi, a flight that has become routine for me. Monday afternoon I arrived in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and made my way to my friends house who lives in Kinshasa. Shortly after arriving at my friends house the rain that surprised me in Nairobi found me again and released a giant cloudburst soaking the city. Unfortunately at the same time a UN flight from eastern DRC was attempting to land and was caught up in a windshear which smashed the small plane into the ground, killing all but one passenger. At the time another friend was stuck circling above in a SAA flight that only revealed that there was a delay due to the weather conditions. When he landed 30 minutes later he said he had no idea that there had been a recent accident and saw several wrecks on the ground around the airfield.

When we were all together on ground at my local friend's apartment he gave us the low down on life in Kinshasa: even though crime is considered critically high there haven't been any violent acts against expats. You had better lock your car doors as people will try to open them in traffic or when you slow down for the many pot-holes or larger road craters. He also said only crazy people take taxis in Kinshasa as many have been driven off and robbed at gun point. A recent scam was for locals to approach an expat and flash a badge and say they were undercover police, then pull a gun and force the victim into a vehicle. However, he said the robbers are usually polite and have been known to leave enough money to catch a cab back to where they were abducted. My friend also warned me not to take any photos of anything or anybody as it was against the law until recently and police have seized many cameras from tourists. Armed with this knowledge we stayed in for dinner that night.

On Tuesday, my second day in Kinshasa we attempted to visit the Bonobo monkey reserve outside of town but my friend got lost and we ended up to our surprise a couple hours later making a giant circle around the town to his neighborhood again. We gave up, got some lunch, and headed to the Bralima Brewery, a place he easily found. My friend had toured it several times and arranged an official tour guide who took us through the museum of old vats and then through the soda section (Coke, Fanta, and Schweppes) and the much larger beer section. At the end of the tour we were guided to a beer garden and offered as much as we could drink of whatever we wanted. My friends started with the Turbo King (7% alcohol rumored to be mixed with nicotine), then moved on to the more traditional Primus and Legend beers while I sampled the Fanta, Sprite, and Soda water. After the heat of the day we crashed for a while in my friends air conditioned apartment before going out for dinner. After dinner I fell asleep to the sound of a solid rain on the pavement below.