Love those chimps, but it’s time for a cold beer and hot shower

The adventure continues…

If you missed the first half, it was quite the ride:  A Break from ‘the bush’: Adventures in the Congo

The car stopped abruptly in the middle of the street and everyone piled out. I quickly realized that I had no idea where I was meeting Sylvie.

Thankfully, she picked up her phone and we arranged to meet at the Ice Cream shop nearby. The thought of something cold was enough to make me cry, but something frozen…ice cream, no less. The possibilities for the next 24 hours seemed endless.

 

After yet another prayer-inducing moto ride, I was soon chatting with Sylvie over pistachio ice cream, cramming our life stories into abbreviated versions that led us to why we were living in DRC.

Two hours later, we dashed out to find Sylvie’s car. We were losing daylight and still had a full itinerary to tackle- a tour of the city, a ‘snack’ at her house, dinner at The Orchid, a Congolese concert after, maybe dancing…

After a whirlwind tour of the city, we arrived at her place, hidden behind an enormous, steel gate with a guard on watch 24/7.

Her flat seemed like a penthouse. She had a huge deck overlooking the river. And, most importantly, she had a shower, like a real one…with a shower head…and running water…hot, running water.

 

Sylvie’s roommate, Habib, had a bottle of wine chilling and a full spread waiting for us- grilled chicken, two different salads, grilled vegetables…actual green vegetables.

The day I arrived in DRC, I declared myself a vegetarian. I couldn’t’ stand to see the way the lil’ goats were treated. And that’s the meat I would be eating.

On this day, however, I happily fell off the vegetarian wagon with no remorse.

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Lunch at the Sanctuary…every day.

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Lunch at Sylvie’s.

Next stop was The Orchid, the hot spot for ex-pats and wealthy Congolese.

I guess this is a good time to try to explain what life as an ex-pat is like in a place like DRC. I won’t torture you with Congo’s horrific history of being exploited by ‘white men’s’ religious or mineral-seeking agendas. But you can see ‘our’ footprint everywhere you look. Congolese people are still being taken advantage of and/or repressed, but now it’s under the guise of ‘humanitarian/UN peace-keeping” or “mutually-beneficial economic/trade agreements.” That’s my very strong opinion, anyway.

It’s shocking when you first see it, the wealth juxtaposed to the blatant, extreme poverty. Enormous SUVs forge their way through the streets packed with small piles of scrap metal hovering over four wheels. Lakeside mansions surround lake Kivu, hiding tiny, dilapidated shacks behind them, all packed with an average 4-6 children. And I assure you, it’s not the international aid workers or peacekeepers occupying the latter.

And yes, Sylvie lives in one of those beautiful places on the lake. She doesn’t live quite as extravagantly as some of the larger non-profits, but she lives well.

Living well, however, comes at a cost. People who choose the life of an ex-pat in conflict or poverty-stricken countries are signing up for an extremely stressful, uncomfortable existence. It can get lonely, depressing, frustrating, and dysfunctional.

For obvious reasons, ex-pats are regarded as extremely wealthy and privileged. Most locals believe we (people from developing countries) have infinite resources. We do, comparatively speaking. But it’s hard for locals to understand that not all of us have access to those resources, that some of us really are struggling to keep our heads above water.

I’ve experienced this at the sanctuary. The boys sometimes come to me, telling me in detail about their sick child or dad’s funeral they can’t pay for. It’s heart-breaking to hear their struggles and know they think I’m just too greedy to help them. It’s also very frustrating. I truly don’t have any money to give them right now, to the contrary. But again, they can’t wrap their heads around this. I get it, but it doesn’t make it any less maddening.

On that note, we are also taken advantage of to the extreme when it comes to the buying goods and services. For example, our go-to moto driver charges us $5 each way to get to the closest internet cafe 7 kilometers away. One day, out of desperation, I flagged down some random guy to see if he would give me a ride. He agreed…for fifty cents.

Drivers charge local Congolese the equivalent of $5 or less for the 30-minute drive to Bukavu. As a foreigner, if you don’t know any better and can’t speak French, you will pay $50 or more. I know this from experience. I had a driver quote me $50 to go to Bukavu. I was told this was normal, so I agreed to his fee, getting a verbal agreement before I got in. When he dropped me off, he said I owed him $100. He did not get $100. He got $50.

I know how terrible this all sounds. Why not just give the moto driver the $10? This is infinitely more than he can make anywhere else. This could feed all of his children for a week.

But the reality is, I truly don’t have it. I’m working at the sanctuary for room and board. My sweet husband and I have made a lot of sacrifices for me to do this, financially and otherwise. I can’t ask him to wire me money everytime someone asks me to help them or overcharges me because I’m not a local.

I want to emphasize, THESE STATEMENTS ARE GENERALIZATIONS! Yes, this happens frequently. However, there are also so many honest, generous people here who would give you their last plate of beans if you were hungry, even while their stomachs were empty.

They’ve seen so much horror, experienced so much death and lived generation after generation starving, stripped of their rights, and made slaves in their own country. Yet, they still open up their homes and hearts to foreigners. I have experienced this, as well, way more times than I’ve been overcharged.

The last thing I will say here is the vast majority of people who go to work in these situations are doing it for genuinely altruistic reasons. They are sacrificing comfort, safety, relationships, sometimes their lives to try to make a positive impact in these people’s lives. They treat and pay them well. They feel guilty when their drivers drop them off at their fancy houses, then go home to their homes that are anything but.

It’s not an easy life to live, and very few are able to sustain it for more than a year or two. I respect them tremendously…I only lasted six months.

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Another element inherent to living as an ex-pat is a very small community is your world is in fact, very small…which can get a bit incestuous. This means if you are single, your options are extremely limited. There is also the added dynamic of a phenomenon that can happen when you’re reality is so far removed from that of your husband or wife or partner living back home. Communication is limited and chances to see each other, rare. Your reality becomes the small, isolated world around you. You bond quickly with those who are in the same extreme situations. In other words, infidelity is rampant.

This brings us to Jaque.

Sylphie and I got to the Orchid and sat down at a cozy spot overlooking the lake. She ordered our beers and started chatting with the waiter. I closed my eyes, soaking in the cool breeze coming off the lake, relishing the chorus of French, English and Swahili swirling around me with the spirited rhythm of African drums filling in the spaces between. Any thoughts of ‘roughing it in the bush’ melted away as I waited to indulge in my second meal of the evening. No matter that I wasn’t hungry, there was food, and it wasn’t beans and potatoes, and it was hot, and the beer was cold.

But before our beers even arrived, there were two men sitting across from us. I don’t even think they knew each other. I looked around the room and couldn’t help but laugh. All eyes were on us, the men looked envious, the women annoyed.

To be clear, I am not single, nor do I have any desire to cheat on my husband. But like I said, marriage doesn’t register to most as an issue that would interfere with how the night’s events unfold.

Jaque, a married man from France, seemed to think tonight’s events were going to end in his favor. And he was NOT subtle about it.

Before I knew it, he had arranged for his driver to take us to the concert we were going to. After, we would go to a new trendy dance club. And tomorrow, we would be renting canoes from the hotel, after which we would have a fancy lunch before his driver took me back to Lwiro….all his treat.

Okay, Jaque, I’m in. But be clear, Sylvie won’t be leaving my side…and she is who I will be going home with tonight.

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The Orchid: Indulging in the luxury of air conditioning, uninterrupted internet, and cold beer.

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A bit of local music

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Jaque, “I’ve totally got this”. Guy behind him, “Damn, he’s totally got this”. Me, “You got nothing, my boy… besides the beer in your hand, you got nothing”.

As it turns out, I can hold my own dancing Congolese Rumba and still stay up later than 8:30pm.

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A Break from ‘the bush’: Adventures in the Congo

An adventure to be sure…

After a month and a half in the bush (although it feels more like a sparse collection of trees than a dense jungle), I decided it was time for a reprieve.

IMG_1049As often happens in these scenarios, I became fast friends with a woman who visited my supervisor, Carmen, two weeks ago. Sylvie is the Director of Conservation for Kahuzi-Biega, the national park/UNESCO World Heritage Site where our chimpanzee sanctuary is located. We instantly clicked and she invited me to visit her in Bukavu, the closest city to Lwiro.

I was hesitant at first, primarily because I didn’t want to inconvenience her. But to be honest, I was mainly dreading the thought of making the trek there by bus- a long, hot, exhausting affair, to be sure.

The closest village to Lwiro is Kuvumu, only 7 Kilometers away. However, the only available mode of transportation there is by moto. The road is a brutal collection of deep rivets, enormous potholes and large, obtrusive rocks, so the whole ordeal takes over half an hour to conquer. And this is only the first leg of the journey.

That said, the thought of a hot delicious meal (ex-pat style), wine and good company trumped my reservations. A week later, I was on the back of Obe’s moto (my new friend/chauffer), on my way to the big city.

Me.obe.motoI was already sweating in the afternoon heat, clinging to Obe’s thick down jacket, which he wears faithfully regardless of the temperature.

He agreed to drop me off at the ‘bus stop’ in Kuvumu, which turned out to be a row of old cars parked on the side of the road. He led me over to a man leaning against one of the cars that, in any other context, would be mistaken for a pile of scrap metal. But Obe assured me, “This is much better than ‘le bus’…much faster, much better.”

This ‘faster, better, taxi service entails waiting as long as it takes to fill up any random car way beyond its intended capacity. But what the hell. When in Congo…

The back seat was already packed with one poor woman smashed between two very large, very well-fed men. The driver granted me the option of claiming the entire front seat for an extra 2,000 Francs (less than $2). Or, we could wait until we found another passenger, who would basically be sitting on my lap. I tried to seem indifferent as I dumped out all the contents of my bag, praying I had the extra 2,000 Francs before my travel companion was spotted.

An hour later, front seat all to myself, we approached our destination. Lake Kivu dominated the view, expansive and seemingly tranquil, with only a few men in pirogues retrieving their nets from the murky water.

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But any sense of calm was overwhelmed by the cacophony of noises blasting through the window – relentless horns passed down from one car to the next, excited chatter from the endless row of vendors lining the street, herds of goats audibly resisting the ropes around their necks. A haze of chalky dust overtook the car, accompanied by a steady stream of smoke billowing out of the piles of burning trash.

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vendorsThe spirited beat of Congolese music spilled out of the radio, providing the perfect soundtrack for the colorful, frenetic performance I was now a part of.

I caught a glance of myself in the review mirror, a huge smile firmly in place.

Welcome to Bukavu.

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support all the work that goes into protecting the chimps and other wildlife in danger of extinction. 

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A storm’s a-brewin’ (and we’re all in the same ‘boue’)

More of my adventures in Congo

Summoning Magic: A Gypsy's Tale

Warning: this one gets a little messy.

The Congo adventure continues…

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A storm’s a-brewin’

When I first arrived, DRC was in the thick of its dry season. Just looking over the fields would elicit thirst-  a dull brown backdrop of’ cultivated plots with little to offer but dried out crops scorched by the relentless sun.

Tragically, deforestation has rendered the ‘forest’ a sparse collection of trees, most of which have acquiesced to the parched color du jour, extinguishing any thought of moisture.

And then the rains came.

Almost daily, around three in the afternoon, ominous, dark clouds come rolling in. There is a deceptive calm that awaits their arrival- a light breeze dances in the trees, inspiring long, languid backbends of the palm branches.

An eerie darkness settles in, and in a matter of seconds, the clouds unleash with a ferocity I’ve never experienced. A barrage of raindrops pummels the…

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The Smell of a Memory: My Adventures in Congo’

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Kongo and one of his crew ‘monkeying around’

They say that smells are a powerful trigger for memories. If this is the case, I can’t say I’m terribly excited about recalling my time here. This isn’t to say I won’t have good memories. I’m just not particularly fond of the smells that might encourage them- the acrid smoke of burning trash, overwhelming body odors that seem to linger even in the absence of bodies, the acidic smell of overripe fruit that makes it hurt to I breathe in.

Nothing, however, can compete with my walk to work.

Our office is located in the Natural Science Research Center- a hauntingly beautiful memory of colonization, consisting of several simplistic yet imposing buildings linked together by long corridors that cluster around small, open-air patios.

Despite the obvious state of decay, it is a huge source of pride for the locals and attracts visitors and high-level officials from all over the country. It truly is a beautiful place to walk to every morning…until you hit the hallway leading to our office.

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Being a ‘research center’ in a remote area of a developing country necessitates a certain collage of accompanying smells that seem to be as much as part of the building as its white-washed walls.

Most of the time, the doors that line the halls are locked (the government has still not agreed to pay their workers in full, thus the workers are not working). But every once in a while a door is left ajar and you get a peek at why you have opted to stop breathing out of your nose- various animal appendages and skeletons decorate the walls, piles of stuffed furry creatures cover the shelves with jars of what is most likely their former contents scattered throughout. A jolting combination of old fur, mothballs, decaying flesh and formaldehyde mock any admirable attempts of fresh air to pass through the dark, musty hallways.

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Luckily, six months of daily exposure has rendered this aromatic concoction as normal to my senses as the screams of chimps flying through my office window.

I am certain there are more pleasant scents that greet me throughout the day, but they seem to be snuffed out by the present tense.

There is, however, one final component that has proven a bit more difficult to embrace; our office is located right next to the bathroom. Under normal circumstances, this would seem like a convenient perk…except that the bathroom has no running water. To ‘flush’ one has to walk over to the neighboring office, fill up a bucket with water, walk back to the bathroom and drown out the contents.

That is the process. No one does it. I will leave the resulting odor to your imagination.

Interestingly enough, my path home is a welcomed journey back to one of my favorite adventures. I have yet to figure out the source, but there is a long stretch of my walk that is filled with the smell of orange blossoms.

I’m instantly transported to Sevilla, Spain in the Spring of 1998- Flamenco music spilling into the streets, the taste of Manzanilla wine on my tongue and the sweet scent of orange blossoms making sure I never forget.

Maybe my next trip to Spain will take me back to Lwiro, DRC in the fall of 2013.

You can donate directly to the sanctuary here to support and all the work that goes into protecting these amazing souls, 

 

*In case you missed it, here’s a taste of the first few days in the Congo…

“Wait, you want me to fix breakfast for 54 chimps, 74 monkeys and a turtle”?

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Walk home from work

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Kongo…so handsome, this guy.

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Our walking ritual. I walk. He follows. I stop. He sits…

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Kongo making sure we know who’s in charge

Father’s Day. June 21, 1992. (Revisited)

I just realized I didn’t mention this is something I wrote last Father’s Day. Here’s the link if anyone missed it and is interested in reading.

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This just felt right today. It’s raining. It’s Father’s Day…and he’s been on my mind.

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Quote Challenge, day 3 of 3: Feeling… to the point that defies logic.

I’m admittedly sad this is my last day to share the words I love most. I want to thank my dear virtual friend, brandewijnwords again for the inspiration he always finds a way to elicit.

I’m of course breaking the rules, again. I couldn’t decide on one..so I picked five. There are just too many. (more of my favorites, visit @summoningmagic)

My response got a bit intense, but I guess I’m a little intense, so…

“There are no half measures in love, only all or nothing. And if it doesn’t make you tremble and go mad at the very thought of its absence, you should move on.”
~ Beau Taplin//Move on

“I understand now that I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, “For the same reason I laugh so often- because I’m paying attention.”     ~ Glennon Doyle 

“She loves deep and fast. With all of herself, or not one bit. She’ll give people all of her light, in turn struggle to understand when they don’t pay that back. She wants you to think she can’t be hurt, but truth is, she gets hurt easier than most. She is fierceness and tenderness, within the same breath. This is her beauty. In her total lack of in betweens.”
~ Carson Patrick Bowie

“I have this terrible urge to be reckless…and I am dreadfully frightened of becoming old and having no memories at all. And I know climbing forbidden fences is wrong, so I’ll stick to falling in love with the wrong people and falling off metaphorical trees. I am just dying to do something worth remembering. I suppose there is no logic, not really…only that if I bleed now, I’ll have a lifetime left to heal.”    ~ Sue Zhao

“It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply.”
David Jones


I’m not sure where to go with these, other than to address the underlying theme- feeling…to a point that defies logic. It is, in fact, a blessing and a curse.

The blessing-when I feel love or joy or see something beautiful, it fills me up completely, every part of me. You can see it my eyes and hear it in my voice. I’ve been told it’s infectious, affecting, even altering the mood of those around me.

But this is exactly why it’s also a curse. When I’m hurt or sad or angry, I wear it like a cloak. It penetrates every part of me…and also affects those around me.

It doesn’t last long. I can usually find ways to escape getting caught up in it. Most of the time, anyway.

I wish this was something I could manage better. But I’ve always been like this. I’ve always been extremely sensitive and seem to hurt easier than most. However, this never stopped me. I risked it every time. I’d feel a connection with someone and immediately love them with everything I had. And I got hurt over and over again.

I get hurt, over and over again.

Except now, it has intensified. I was too reckless. I got hurt to the point that something shattered. And it still feels like there’s a gaping wound in the depths of what is now my foundation. I can’t see it, but I feel it, always.

Now, every time I feel something, good or bad, it grazes that part of me that’s now exposed. It’s become sensitive to the touch, so much so, almost everything brings me to tears.

So it’s not just when something hurts, but also when I see or feel something beautiful…a feeling I never thought I would experience again. But when it’s something painful, it immediately takes me back to that place, that time, when something shattered, and I’m afraid it really will take a lifetime to heal.

But what’s the alternative? I play it safe, detach myself, avoid the risk of getting hurt, even if there’s the chance that it could be everything I want, that it could be magic?

I can’t. I won’t. I’ll keep trying, risking the fall, feeling everything…even it means getting hurt, over and over again.

“There are no half measures in love, only all or nothing. And if it doesn’t make you tremble and go mad at the very thought of its absence, you should move on.”

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Quote Challenge, Day 2 of 3: Coming out of the shadows.

Here is my humble attempt at day two of a challenge offered up by one of my favorite blog gurus, brandewijnwords. The task at hand is to share my favorite quotes for three consecutive days.

This has proven to be more difficult than I anticipated. I have so many quotes swirling around my head right now. But this one is the first that came to mind, so I’m going with it. (You can visit @summoningmagic to see more of my favorites.)

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…our playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
~ Marianne Williamson

This first time I read this, I realized I had done this my entire life: played small. There were several reasons why I chose to do this, the primary one being I desperately craved love and acceptance from those I loved…most who didn’t exactly know how to reciprocate. Regardless, it became very clear to me that being the center of attention was not unacceptable.

I never understood it, really. It was next to impossible for me to believe I had any redeeming qualities…precisely because those were not to be cultivated or celebrated. They were to be stifled.

So, for survival purposes, I stayed in the shadows. And it truly was to survive. For me, being rejected by the ones I love the most was and is my worst possible fate. Being the smartest or prettiest or anything that threatened anyone else was simply not an option.

So I played small.

This meant that I constantly attracted people who demanded the spotlight, and I gladly gave it to them.

I’m not sure when the shift happened, but I know this quote fueled it. I imagine being a trainer/coach also contributed. That was my first experience having someone look to me for guidance or want my permission to shine. It changed me. On a fundamental level, it changed me.

There is nothing more beautiful than to be a part of someone realizing their worth.

So I still gladly offer up the spotlight, but it’s no longer for acceptance. It’s for the joy of seeing someone shine from the inside out.

As for the ones who feel they need to steal the light from others, I think I understand it now. They are simply doing what they think will prevent their biggest fear- their worst possible fate- to be rejected by the ones they love the most.

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