Tag Archives: bukavu

In Congo, God Him see.

Editor’s note: This is the twenty-third in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 23 – April 12

Having put myself to bed with solemn intent to make the most of my last day in Bukavu, I wake feeling curiously downbeat – less willing to spend these last few hours exploring the city than curled up with a good book. And so, after breakfast, having passed on the bitter Star brand coffee to save myself for the real thing, I’m on the back of a moto en route to Orchid Safari, hoping to find the peace that my Sunday morning so badly lacked.

And it’s perfect – I have the place to myself. I order a pot of coffee and kick off my sneakers and again get lost in the hills and valleys of Hemingway’s Africa. This is a marvelous book. The premise – that a work of non-fiction might follow the rhythms of a single month in a foreign country – has given me courage: why not turn this trip, mixed with stories from Burundi, and memories of the past year in Rwanda, into a brisk travelogue of my time in the Great Lakes? Certainly, for all the academic work coming out of the region, there hasn’t been much to capture the spirit of traveling here. But is it enough, what I’ve done and seen here? Is this the book that I want to write? And will anyone care what I have to say?

Today I am at peace with such questions – the self-doubt, the usual demons, have taken the day off. It seems possible – anything seems possible. After nearly three years in Africa, I should have a whole bookshelf inside me. South Africa, now, is like both a beacon and a talisman. Once I get there, I know I’ll be capable of marvelous things.

I finish the coffee and then, unhurried, have a beer. Today is a day for reflection, solitude, reverie. I am in a Hemingway mood, I am thinking of landscapes and African skies, morning smells, earth smells, and it’s all a bit disingenuous, I know, I am a city boy, and these wondrous landscapes are just the backdrop for the stories I want to tell. Hemingway made the hills, the woods, the savannah, characters in his books, he gave them personality, life. But then the Africans, the porters and trackers and native chuckleheads – they became part of the scenery. It’s a way of writing about Africa that, I’d like to think, died 50 years ago.

These are the thoughts that occupy me on my way back to the hotel, and as I pack my bags. It is almost three when I meet Landry in front of the Tourist, we have time for a farewell drink. He takes me to a place he just discovered last night – a guest house, the owner is a friend of his father’s, it is down an alley off the Avenue Lumumba. There is a small bar and a furnished living room and an old man sitting at a table, counting a stack of money. It hardly seems like a hidden gem, but then voilà, there is a terrace out back, all the green hills of Bukavu are in front of us, and there is the lake, and suddenly I’m laughing with Landry, too: yes, it was a marvelous find.

We have a quiet beer, I’m still in my state of reverie, the crows are wheeling in the air, there is the sound of children playing somewhere far below us. Now I am back in Kigali: if I close my eyes it is the same breeze, the same voices coming in through the dining-room window. That was a very good house, the Remera house. I lived there for six months, the light filling the living room, those endless mornings at my laptop, watching the sun creep across the table. Those were some of my happiest days – it says something, I think, that my fondest memories are of me at the dining room table, writing. I try to share some of this with Landry but it’s no use, he smiles politely – the truest happiness, I think, is impossible to share.

It is already after four when we get into his car. He is certain the boat won’t leave till six, but I’m foolishly anxious, I haven’t learned a thing. The ticket says 17h and I can’t trust Landry’s inate Congolese sense of things not going according to plan. He knows the MV Iko, he laughs, “I had to make that journey two years ago.” The boat was crowded, there were no rooms for the passengers. “I paid the captain some money – there was a small space in his cabin, and I was able to pass the night,” he tells me.

On the way to the port he has to run an errand – someone is waiting for him at the mayor’s office with some documents. The untroubled pace of this afternoon is starting to distress me – I am, at heart, the sort of traveler who can never be too early. Outside the mayor’s office a woman is sitting on a stool, running a copy machine off an extension cord through the window. Landry’s friend arrives with the documents – just a few meters down the road we pull over. “I have been looking for this man,” says Landry, as another car pulls in behind us. There is a friendly palaver between them, Landry makes an introduction, gets back into the car. They are speaking genially in French, I hear the words “dix milles cinq sant,” think nothing of it. Landry reaches into the backseat for his laptop case. I am fretting, checking the time. Then he pulls out a stack of crisp $100 bills – dix milles cinq sant, $10,500 worth – and hands them to his friend. It seems like the sort of transaction one would grow used to in Bukavu. I give Landry a brief, reappraising look and wonder how well I know my friend. But now it is half-past four, and I am focused again on getting to the port before the MV Iko chugs off without me.

The port road is busy, a sprawling marketplace, swirls of color – you wouldn’t see such sights in a tropical aquarium. Down a bumpy dirt road we go, Landry admitting he’s not sure of the way, ferries and cargo boats being loaded all along the waterfront. We pass a large crowd, a fiery gent – no doubt a pastor – thundering into a microphone. Men directing us along the way, I hop from the car, ticket in hand, ready to make some mad dash to the boat. Foolish of me: there are, of course, “formalités.” We’re being directed again, led to a warehouse where four ticket agents are sitting in a row. Two are brandishing stamps, all four are brandishing scowls. There is a stamp, a tax, another stamp – Landry butts in, a woman has demanded another tax, he wants to know why. She is cowed – no doubt I looked like an easy mark, but here is Landry, fierce, well-dressed, intelligent – a bulldog in an open-collared shirt with justice on his side. I will not pay the tax without a receipt, he says, and suddenly, her hand is laid bare. She does not protest, she has nothing to say. Landry storms off, still disgusted – me thinking of the $2 I pissed away at the port last week.

The commotion of a long journey, of imminent departures. There are boys selling boiled eggs and loaves of bread, men carrying bags of cement and maize meal, loading the cargo bay. The boat is white-washed, sparkling, a veritable Love Boat – as fine a ship as you might want to take on your eight-day Caribbean cruise. But no, someone says, laughing, that’s not the Iko at all. Sure enough, there is the word “Emmanuel” splashed across the stern. The passengers are walking through the galley, there is the Iko – a small, sordid ferry – docked beside it. I put on a brave face for Landry, who laughs and slaps my back as we part. Across a narrow gangplank, struggling to keep my balance, side-stepping past the yawning maw of the cargo hold. The Iko is bobbing lightly, there is much to-ing and fro-ing – no sign, at just a few minutes to five, that we’ll be leaving anytime soon. In second class the passengers are crammed in twos and threes into plush love seats, it looks like a second-hand furniture store, there is a great commotion of luggage being passed around, laughter. Upstairs first class is like a living room: two sofas, a love seat, two coffee tables, a flat-screen TV. It is a small, crowded room – I would imagine, in the MV Iko’s past life, that these were the captain’s quarters. Instead the first-class passengers – fifteen or twenty, at least – are packing in, looking around with puzzlement, and settling into any available space on the sofas. Most are husky women in bright print dresses, men in abacosts and sport jackets. They are pressed shoulder to shoulder, fidgeting, adjusting their feet – as mirthless a group of Congolese as any I’ve seen. The prospect of spending a night in that room is grim beyond words. By the time a crew members asks if I’d like to take my seat – two stout women moving slightly, shifting their heavy haunches – I’ve already decided to take my chances on the deck. I find a plastic chair beside the captain’s cabin, settle in. For the second time this month, it seems, I’ll be spending a night beneath the star-filled sky of Lake Kivu.

This is a cheerless start to the voyage. I am thinking of the Miss Rafiki, with its wide, spacious restaurant – all those inviting corners to curl up in for the night. Next to us, in the idling Emmanuel, the first-class lounge is a tease – cush armchairs, plenty of legroom, plastic floral arrangements, half-a-dozen wall-mounted TVs. You could imagine fat men in pleated pants signing peace treaties and telecom deals in such swank quarters. I feel frustrated, duped. I’m not the only one. Two Congolese men board, give the first-class room a frank look, and start barking at the crew. Soon they are poking their fat aggressive heads into the cabins reserved for shipmates, speaking in low tones, no doubt coming to an arrangement. One of the crewmen crawls into a cubby space beneath the captain’s cabin. His bare feet poke out from a pile of blankets and pineapples.

Commotion all along the shore. Great sacks being hauled into the water on men’s shoulders, long poles of eucalyptus loaded onto a cargo boat. There is a pile of bricks on the beach, like a funeral cairn, and a pair of pigs rooting through the trash. Two boys in a slender pirogue paddle and drift beside us. One is in a sleeveless red t-shirt, a straw hat, the other is hunched beneath a black windbreaker. They are passing a glowing stub of cigarette back and forth between them. There are nets tangled at their feet, sawed-off jerry cans full of sambaza.

The boat comes alive with a rumble, the engine begins to thrum. It is almost six, and still there is a merry commotion of passengers boarding. Shouts from the waterfront, a great body of movement – a thief, perhaps, caught in the act, facing mob justice. A bright red Zodiac boat putters by, a soldier squatting beside a belt-fed machine gun. I smile and wave, and he smiles and waves back. The sun has vanished beneath the hills. The light is gray, murky. Suddenly we lurch forward, we begin to pull away from shore. Past the wooden cargo boats, marvelous crafts as long as the Iko, as old as the Congo, past the narrow pirogues bobbing in the bay, full of grim staring fishermen, past the rusted ferries fallen, I hope, into disuse. A dozen motorcycles are in shallow water, their drivers running wet rags over the spokes and handlebars. And then Bukavu diminishes behind us, tiny pinpoints of light flicker on, and we are chugging out across the lake.

It is a beautiful, clear night. There is a tumult now, a joyful shared energy of a long journey just beginning. The first-class lounge-cum-dormitory is alive with laughter, the loud din of cramped quarters. Congolese music videos are playing on the TV; bottles of beer have suddenly materialized on deck. The hills are dark, there are storm clouds in the distance, we can see flashes of lightning on the horizon. This is, of course, of no small interest to me as I hunker down on the deck. At the front of the boat loud voices – soldiers with their rough boastful ways, arguing good-heartedly about something. Radios crackling with static, ring tones like the nighttime chirrups of some exotic insects. The fishermen are paddling out as the darkness deepens, their brightly lit lanterns flaring up and down the lake.

Cooking smells begin to waft across the boat, two boys rush back and forth with stacks of covered plates. There is a pot of something, cabbage and tomato sauce, maybe, bubbling on a charcoal brazier down below. In my haste to get to the port before the hypothetical departure time, I hadn’t bought anything – no glucose biscuits, no ndazi, no loaves of dry bread. I’m hungry, two men nearby – friends of the captain’s – are picking at a hunk of foufou and half a fried fish. I flag down the waiter, order foufou and meat – “ugali et nyama” – hoping for the best. The wait is long, the others have already finished, they’re licking their fingers with relish. Finally here comes the timid bustling boy, dodging bodies on the deck. He pours cold water from a pitcher over my hands. The foufou is warm, the meat is all fat and bone. I probe a bit with my teeth – I was mistaken. There’s not a single piece of bone on my plate. It is meat, all meat, with the texture and toughness of a spare tire.

It is nine o’clock, it is ten, it is eleven. They’re playing action movies in the lounge – shootouts, car chases rattle the lake’s silence. Approaching midnight they prepare the room for bed – the coffee tables removed, two stiff foam mattresses laid across the carpeting. When I look into the room half an hour later, there are bodies sprawled and tangled everywhere. Heads and feet poke from blankets on the floor, on the sofas. If I’d wanted, I’m sure I could have squeezed in somewhere, found a little nook between two pairs of oversized buttocks. Outside the night has cooled, but it is still pleasant, manageable. The hard part, I know, will be at three, at four. And still I am watching the sky, looking for signs of rain.

I’ve unpacked a few extra layers and just managed to doze of in my chair when a boy joins me. He is 20, a student in Goma, he only speaks French, I don’t catch his name. He had already circled the deck twice, lingered in the shadows – working up the nerve, I suspect, to talk to me. And so talk he does – and talk, and talk. I’m grumpy and sleepy and feeling uncharitable, I can’t help it – even as I curse myself for being such a bastard, I behave like a total bastard. My answers are terse, I volunteer nothing. Each time I close my eyes and begin to nod off, again I hear his high, hysterical voice. Am I married? I am not. “Pourquoi?” Do I have brothers? Are they married? They are not. “Pourquoi?” Every detail of my life is dissected, examined, and then subjected to an incredulous “Pourquoi?” It would be hard enough to bear this late-night inquisition in English. In French, it is intolerable.

But now the conversation has attracted others, and the lively din from the captain’s quarters – he seems to have three, four others sharing his room – spills onto the deck. A short man, very drunk, lurches my way. In the dark I can barely make out his dress, the features of his broad face, but it seems he is military – a colonel, he says, in the FARDC. I wonder to myself if I’ve happened upon the first pygmy officer in the Congolese army – he is tiny, he barely reaches my chin. He is in Bukavu with Operation Amani Leo – the latest MONUC-backed attempt to root out the FDLR in the Kivus – but now he is on his way to Goma to lodge a complaint. He has not been paid in two months – “Deux mois!” he says, stomping his little foot. I do not know who is footing the bill for Amani Leo – the Congolese government? the UN? – but I am hardly surprised at this peacekeeping on the cheap. I remember meeting a Burundian soldier in Bujumbura – a peacekeeper with the African Union’s ANISOM force in Somalia. That mission had been supported by the international community – who could argue with sending African cannon fodder to Mogadishu? – but the pledges from Europe had not been honored, the peacekeepers hadn’t been paid in months. The Burundian soldier had had to pay his own way to Kampala to catch the transport plane to Somalia. He had borrowed the money from his wife – a fact that filled him with great shame.

The colonel is a voluble little man, comically drunk: the way he lurches from side to side, you would think we were pitching about on high seas. He says his name is Christophe Mukubwa – we joke about this irony, Mukubwa, from the Swahili “kubwa,” or big. His father, he explains, was an important chief. When he hears I am a Christophe, too, he embraces me with great feeling: first, taking me by the shoulders; and then, in the Congolese manner, greeting me with a series of head bumps – left, then right, then bumping foreheads. I am in the colonel’s good graces. He is complaining bitterly about the Congolese army. He would like to change its image, improve discipline, regulate pay, boost morale – but how could he, Christophe Mukubwa, accomplish it? “Je ne suis pas haut,” he says. He is just a small fish. There were majors above him, lieutenants, generals. Most of these, he knows, have it in their best interests to maintain the status quo. They profited greatly. How many generals and majors, I wonder, are building those grand lakeside villas in Goma and Bukavu? But Christophe has heard I am a journalist – I had mentioned it to Pourquoi earlier, I don’t know where he’s going with this. An exposé of FARDC wrong-doings? I prefer not to get my hands dirty. Yes, yes, I explain, I am a journalist – but in America only, I’m on vacation here. He nods, yes, of course, it makes perfect sense. He wants to hear all about my impressions of Congo. Then he turns to take a whiz off the side of the boat.

More lightning flashes. I’m expecting the worst, bracing for the cold and the rain, but so far the weather has held out. The insomniacs are out now – the star-gazers, the heavy drinkers, huddling against the railing. A boy begins talking to me – he is the waiter from earlier, who spent the long dinner hour being barked and hissed at. His name is Espoir: Hope. He is 17, a first-born son; with his job aboard the Iko he supports a younger brother and sister, his ailing parents. It is all he has done since he was forced to leave school at 14. “The month they bring me ten dollars, so I cannot do anything with the life,” he says. In a few hours, at three, he will begin preparing the tea for breakfast. In Goma he will get an hour or two to rest; then he is off to the market, he has to buy meat and vegetables and fish, he comes back to the boat to begin preparing for dinner. Sleep, when he gets it, comes in brief snatches. He is friendly, soft-spoken, laughing, resigned. “God Him see,” he says, shaking his head. “In Congo, God Him see.”

The night deepens. The stars trail across the sky. One by one the others drop off, I huddle up in my seat, wrap myself in extra layers. I sleep fitfully – 20 minutes, 30 minutes, then my head snaps up as someone steps gingerly by. The crew are sprawled out on the deck, wrapped in blankets, sleeping on foam mattresses. From the captain’s quarters, the sounds of more bottles being popped open. It is a long night. By five, dimly, I can see the glow of Nyiragongo through a thin veil of clouds. It is still a long way off. The wind has suddenly picked up, the temperature has dropped – this last hour is a bitter one. I am doubled over in my seat, trying to use my raincoat to block the wind. Finally, gray light over the hills. The flag snaps briskly at the helm. Goma, at last, comes into view. The lake is the color of a battleship, the sky like armor. Sleepy bodies emerge from the first-class cabin, barefoot, toothbrushes poking from between their lips. Much foam-mouthed spitting over the side. Passengers standing at the helm, baring their teeth to the wind. It is half-past six, we are chugging into the bay. Someone tells me we will arrive within the hour.

Pourquoi is back, and another boy, a student, who speaks some English. We stand against the railing, leaning over the side. There was a plane crash in 1994, says the student, the wreckage has never been found. “The lake is very profound,” he says, staring into its mysterious depths. Pourquoi feels excluded by the conversation, I can tell. I throw out conciliatory phrases in French, tell brief, aimless stories hemmed in by the language barrier. I behaved badly toward him last night, and feel a need to make amends. This could have been a memorable passage for him, we could have spanned the continents with our conversations under that star-filled sky. I was sulking, uncharitable – a real jerk. We are chatting more amiably now – I want only for us to part on the best of terms – but now others are coming out of the first-class cabin, fresh, alert, grinning as they butt into the conversation with well-turned English phrases. Pourquoi inches along the railing, he can’t follow the words. I don’t notice when he finally, quietly slips away.

A man, forty-ish, traces of gray in his hair, approaches me. He is slightly unkempt, as if this weren’t the first night he’d spent sleeping in his clothes. He wears two gold rings and his pinkies, by some genetic mishap, are tiny, unformed, they twist out to the side like baby prawns. I am fascinated by these freakish fingers. “To do business in Congo is very, very good,” says this man, Fidele, his little pinkies twitching. He works in minerals – a good sector, I say, nodding approvingly, as if I might just be looking to expand my portfolio. I ask about dealing with the government – a breeze, he assures me. “I go to the office, small money here, small money here, it is done,” he says, making a brisk gesture with his hand. For a foreigner, of course, it is not so easy, the government is always looking for handouts. But that is simple enough, he says. “You can find a partner, a Congolese, and he will handle everything for you,” says faithful Fidele. He gives me a significant look, and I imagine I wouldn’t have to look too far to find the partner he has in mind.

Fidele has traveled – he has been to the UK, Europe. He makes a contemptuous face. “Je ne peux pas preferer l’europe,” he says, shaking his head vigorously. The life here in Congo is good – the soil is rich, there is so much money to be made. He gestures to a magnificent lakeside villa – it would not seem out of place on the French Riviera. “In Congo, you can have that house in a few years,” he says, his voice swelling with admiration. “In America, you will work your whole life.” A horror, like a sudden chill, comes over him. “Fucking job,” he says, then again, with a venomous sort of mirth: “Fucking job!”

I am vague about my own fucking job, I travel, I say ambiguously, as if I, too, might be a fortune-hunter like Fidele. He senses a kindred spirit, he writes his name and contact info on a slip of paper and underscores the point that I can call him anytime. “It is very good for a businessman in Congo,” he says, almost choked with emotion. He offers a parable: he went to London in 2005, he was trying to export Kivu coffee beans to the UK. But there were so many officials with prying eyes, so many taxes and laws! Even now, Fidele can’t shake the bad feeling that came over him five years ago on a business trip to London. How could anyone manage to make a dishonest living?

Behind Fidele is an older man, handsome, dignified, in a brown suit and a black mock turtleneck. He is pointing a camcorder at the boat, at the hills – hell would be an endless loop of African home videos, I think. I tell him he looks like a tourist but he laughs, shakes his head. He is from Goma, but he has two daughters studying in America, in Arkansas, he likes to take pictures to send them. I do not catch his name, he says he is the director of the central bank in Goma – Fidele has grown quiet, he takes a sudden interest in the waves. The man is hoping to visit his daughters this year – he is going to America in June, to Maui, for a month-long seminar. I give him a second look. “I’m in the wrong line of work,” I say. He laughs genially, pans his camera across the waterfront. Now there is a commotion of voices, movement. It is half-past seven, and we are finally pulling into port.

It has been an endless day – how many of these days have I known in Africa, these marathon journeys. I gather my things, haul them downstairs, through too-narrow doorways. Porters have begun climbing aboard the Iko, pirate-style, taking the stairs in twos and threes. The passengers queue with surprising patience; a chicken, too, waits with a solemn gravity for which its species is not known. Now we are bumping and pushing onto the waterfront, a riot of porters, soldiers, waiting relations. An official, the same official who shook me down for 500 francs last week, spots me in the crowd. One last indignity, I tell myself. He takes me to customs, more scribbling, more stamps, but a surprise: there is no tax to be paid. The ports have squeezed me as dry as they’re going to squeeze me. I hop onto the back of a moto, we make our way along the muddy port road. The sun is over the hills, a bright gold medallion, and I’m facing my last two days in Congo.

I am just a poor journalist.

Editor’s note: This is the twenty-second in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 22 – April 11

The crusade is in full swing this morning – the soundcheck begins at half-past seven. By the time I’ve showered and dressed for breakfast, the worshippers are already pouring in: women, big, stout, matronly, with proud God-fearing faces, and slender men in ill-fitting jackets, and little boys in little-boy suits, and cheerful girls in tulle party dresses, and a little girl in a white hat and white dress and white shoes, like she’s on her way to her first communion. An old gent with a trim beard and a thinning horseshoe of hair looks at me with an imploring face. He is a pastor, I think, he has a small leather-bound book in his hand, he surely wants me to join the congregation. But it is too much for me, this hysteria, this early-morning rapture. And so I am on my way to the lake again, to Orchid Safari – another of the swish lakeside hotels – hoping to find the peace I couldn’t find yesterday at the Hotel La Gauche.

This is, I think, walking into the main lodge, more like it. Gone are the crisp white linens of La Roche, the plastic floral centerpieces, the garish overt opulence of Africa’s nouveau riche. The place is subdued – earth tones, track lighting, the music is barely audible – and one hardly has to look at the menu to know what higher culinary spheres one is now traveling in. (Though if one does, the options – tournedos façon chevreuil, choucrotte garnie – present a certain baffling refinement, at twenty bucks a pop.) On the wall are contemporary African paintings, elephant-dung art, a Warhol reproduction. Outside, the terrace is done up like a hunting lodge – above the fireplace a mounted buffalo’s head, the dark eyes dull and anesthetized, the powerful swoop of the horns. Beside the terrace is lush tropical foliage, and beyond that, the lake. The plump cumulus clouds, the mild green hills, are reflected in its polished surface – you can appreciate here why the Belgians, so smitten by this place, had called it “the Switzerland of Africa.”

I am reading Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, the pages well-thumbed and dog-eared, and it is having a very curious effect on me. Certainly there is irony in this setting: across from the mounted head is a buffalo’s skull, and beside it the head of an antelope, a kudu perhaps, with those long marvelous corkscrew horns. Only they’re on display in this very genteel, $200-a-night resort, with its imported bottles of Chimay and Leffe beer and its $8 croques monsieurs. It is striking how white travelers will pay princely sums for this sort of bush chic, while the Congolese will pay just as much for a stiff-linened aesthetic that strains toward – one has to say it – colonial refinement. Jarring, then, to sit beneath those mute judgmental buffalo eyes, to read of Hemingway and Pop and P.O.M., and Droopy and M’Cola, tracking rhino through the overgrown elephant grass, Papa sighting with his Springfield, getting the musky scent of the game, following the trail of blood spoors on blades of grass, to read those rich loamy bush smells, to almost smell them, sitting here in Chez Orchid, drinking coffee from my effete little porcelain pot.

Certainly you get used to such incongruities in Africa. Only now, drowning out the Whitney Houston – ! – on the stereo, the overbearing bustle of the waiters, looking past the lake toward the Rwandan hills, and Hemingway’s Africa is spreading before me. Now, being in Africa, I was hungry for more of it, the changes of the seasons, the rains with no need to travel, the discomforts that you paid to make it real, the names of the trees, of the small animals, and all the birds, to know the language and have to be in it and to move slowly. That country, Hemingway’s country, brings me back to Kenya, always. The fresh morning smell of the savannah, the sun rising, roosting in the baobabs. Walking once in the Maasai Mara, we skirted the path of two ill-tempered buffalo muscling through the bush, and suddenly there was the whole tree-freckled plain, the sub-scrubbed savannah, stretching like a golden carpet in the sunlight.

I want to pursue these reveries, only there are two Americans, aid workers, at the next table, and they are drowning out my thoughts. The girl is young, in her twenties, with that flat brassy accent and projectile voice of Midwestern girls who spent their college years grabbing rebounds, chasing down rugby balls. Her companion, an older man, white-haired, an aid veteran, speaks with a murmur, almost inaudibly – the voice of experience, a man trained in discretion. She dominates the conversation. There was a problem with Burma, she explains – not with the country, or the ruling junta, but with the way her organization gathered data there. She had an idea, a system of lists, a better way to organize the data collected in the field. It was remarkable, efficient. “Those were the types of ways we dealt with the Burma problem,” she says.

The terrace now is beginning to fill – a young Belgian couple, or French, stylish, tapping away on their laptops; then two older American women, blonde, sun-freckled, in loose, colorful dresses; then a MONUC contingent, two Tunisians, an American women, a Malaysian. A French woman joins the American aid workers beside me. There is a project, the American says, her organization is sending an intern to Iraq. “What we need is for someone to sit through the summer and log data,” she says. It sounds hellish. They are prattling on, I’m drowning in aidspeak, the American is explaining at great length “what’s really cool about the data set” she’s acquired. It seems like a terrible way to spend a sunny Sunday morning. Now one of the older American women is approaching the MONUC soldiers, she lives here, it seems, there’s been a break-in at home. It’s not the first time, she says. She has a high, shrieking, distressed, hysterical laugh. There is a MONUC base nearby – surely, someone saw something. The Tunisians are poker-faced – their mustaches don’t even twitch. It is life in a war zone, after all. The days has grown warm, my mood has soured. I finish my drink, pay the bill. It is a long walk up the hill.

Again a feeling of restlessness, of unease, comes over me. I am ready, I think, for this trip to end. It seems like madness to think that in less than two weeks, I’ll be in South Africa – and so much to do before then! I have two edits to run through this week – my New York Times piece on Bujumbura, and finally, at long last, my Sports Illustrated story on the Rwandan cycling team [Ed. note: Still yet to run, FY fucking I.] – and I desperately need to crank out some stories for Variety, if I have any hope of actually getting paid this May. My taxes, too, need to be filed this week – impossible to imagine getting to them with the Internet speeds in Goma. I have overextended myself, I think – have just barely gone too long detached from the rest of the world. And still, it has been worth every minute, every penny. It’s been a very good trip.

After lunch I have plans to meet with Jean Luc – Justin’s brother, a journalist here in Bukavu. He is waiting for me by the market – older, forty-ish, his hair and goatee threaded with white. He greets me effusively, takes me by the hand – bless these Congolese! We go to a local bar, a poured-cement dance hall full of plastic tables and chairs, loud music, drunken voices, overlooking Patrice Lumumba. We order two Sprites, which arrive lukewarm. Jean Luc tells me he reports for a Christian radio station, Neno la Uzina – he translates this roughly as “the Word will save you.” He has been reporting on local news from around South Kivu. “The political situation here is very bad,” he says. Recently he reported on a killing here in Bukavu – he thought there was some link to the security services. But it was impossible to tell who was behind the violence here, he says. “We think that maybe it is because of the political situation,” he says. He shrugs. “Maybe it is someone with the hunger in his stomach.” On the radio he has to stay objective, report just the facts. “As a journalist, I have to keep a narrow view,” he says. He cannot editorialize on the air. “Otherwise, tomorrow” – he draws a finger across his throat.

This is not just idle talk. Reporting in Congo is dangerous business – just last week, a journalist was killed in Beni, in the north, under suspicious circumstances. Three journalists have been killed in Bukavu since 2008 – last year, there was a report that some were receiving death threats by text message. It makes Jean Luc’s job even harder. He cannot do any reporting from the countryside, it is too difficult, too dangerous. He wonders if he might be able to hitch a ride with MONUC. “I am just a poor journalist,” he says, with a sigh.

The security situation is always changing – even the peace in Bukavu now is, he knows, a tentative one. The instability in the countryside he blames on the Rwandan genocidaires who have been a cancer in the Kivus since 1994. “You can ask anyone in this restaurant, they will tell you the FDLR is the biggest problem we have,” he says. “If the FDLR leaves tomorrow, everyone will say merci a dieu – thanks to God.” Instead they were in the countryside, they were terrorizing the villages, fighting the FARDC, MONUC, the Mai-Mai militias. Impossible to consider how, sixteen years after the genocide, the aftershocks are still being felt. In Rwanda the FDLR threat remains the government’s raison d’être – it ensures a perpetual existential crisis, the threat of Tutsi extinction, it allows the government to operate with a free hand. How can anyone question draconian laws against the spread of “genocide ideology” – whatever that might entail – when the Hutu barbarians remain at the gate, ready to finish the job from ’94? The author Gerard Prunier, in Africa’s World War, makes a valid point: Kagame and company know first-hand what a ragtag army can achieve after years in the bush. It can topple a country. But what to do from Kigali? It isn’t 1997, you can’t just push your way into the Congo to root out the last of the rebels. And how can the Congolese, with their poorly trained army – as much a threat to villagers as the FDLR – secure their own country? There is no easy solution, no end to the crisis in sight. Jean Luc sighs – like so many Congolese, he remains hopeful, in spite of the evidence at hand. “If the FDLR ever goes back to Rwanda, I think we will have peace here,” he says.

Outside it is a brilliant, hot afternoon. We are walking along the Avenue Lumumba, toward La Bote – Jean Luc has an hour to kill before heading to the station. We pass the mayor’s office – a beautiful, bright blue Art Deco that swoops around a corner – and I pause to take a picture. Jean Luc looks nervous, dissuades me. “People know I am a journalist,” he says, “and tomorrow, they will summon me, they will ask, ‘Who was that mzungu with you? Why was he taking pictures?’” Even picture-taking in the Congo comes with a certain peril. Instead we stop, admire the architecture. A MONUC caravan passes – two lorries, an SUV, a jeep with a Pakistani at a mounted gun in the rear. Many of the “casques bleus,” the blue helmets, says Jean Luc, will sneak pictures from inside their vehicles. It must be a strange life for them here. Yesterday, at the market, I watched two Uruguayans, tall and burly, circling among the vegetables. And an Egyptian, assault rifle slung across his chest, waiting while a comrade shopped in an alimentation. The boys selling Fantas and blue jeans called me “amigo.” But then, in 2004, when Laurent Nkunda attacked the city, and the MONUC peacekeepers stood by, there were violent demonstrations against the UN. Jean Marie told me in Bujumbura how he and his friends threw stones at the Uruguayans. One of his rocks clipped a soldier in the helmet. He remembered this detail specifically, recalled it with relish.

Down La Bote, turning onto a dirt road, Jean Luc wants to show me where he lives. It is seven kilometers from the center of town. We are on the edge of a hill. “There,” he says, pointing across the bay, to where the tin rooftops of a crowded quartier flash against the sunlight. Nearby we hear laughter – two women and a stout drunk man, leaning against a car. He has heavy-lidded, solicitous eyes, he is trying to convince them he is a gynecologist. They laugh, walk off. He comes to me and Jean Luc, greets us, shakes our hands. “Women need fucking,” he says, swaying from side to side. “I told them I am a doctor. I can show them how.”

Doctor's orders: a mural warns against multiple partners

That night the hotel restaurant is full. A family, a couple, another couple. An older woman with a man, maybe her son, sitting at the next table. She is large, bent over the table, her back rises like a hump. God only knows what mysteries that dress conceals. Her companion is stocky, he might have been an athlete once – now he is all stomach. They’ve ordered foufou and sambaza, they are demanding, meticulous. They send a plate back, it’s gone cold, the waiter brings a fresh plate but now the other, half-eaten, is sent back, too. Each time the waiter makes it back to the counter they hiss, wag their fingers, make some fresh demands. The woman is wearing her glasses on the tip of her nose, the power is out, and she’s holding the sambaza to the candlelight, inspecting it like a jeweler. Pity these Congolese boys, les petits, the underpaid waiters and porters whose livelihoods depend on these fat, overbearing feudal lords and ladies – the heavy-haunched elites who carry their thrones on their ample behinds.

One for the road.

Editor’s note: This is the twenty-first in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 21 – April 10

The morning starts, as any good morning should, with songs of praise.

The “salle de conference” at the Tourist hotel apparently doubles as a church hall, and by half-past eight, it is already crowded with worshippers. They are singing and swaying and wagging their hands with fervor, egged on by two pastors whose faces are slick with sweaty, religious rapture. In the corner, a guitarist plucks an off-key tune; the drummer has not yet turned up. The effect of this early-morning religiosity on my mood is not unpleasant. I have spent more than three years in Africa; I have witnessed church services in remote corners of Uganda and Malawi, have watched Maasai villagers gathered in a tin shack in the Kenyan bush to sing warbling songs from their hymn books. (The pastor, gladdened by my presence, gave thanks that “even the white man has found God.”) I am not put off by these things, not surprised when one of the first questions out of a stranger’s mouth is, “Are you Christian?” or “Are you saved?”

It is no small thing, at my age, to shrug off the self-satisfied East Coast cynicism that compels one to handle an earnest Christian the way one handles a retarded kid with drool on his chin. I am comfortable in Africa with all this Bible-thumping and God-praising; I’ve mostly given up on the smug self-assurance that I know any better. Without the presence of the church in eastern Congo, besides, this region would be even worse off than it already is.

And the presence is everywhere. There are a half-dozen churches within a 10-minute stroll from the hotel, and I have seen people pouring from them on all days, at all hours: Thursday afternoon, Friday morning. On Sundays the services seem to last from dawn to dusk. On the streets I see advertisements for Christian concerts – one ad, for a “grand concert” with a certain Christine Shusho, promises attendees a real “soirée chrétienne.” The people of Bukavu seem to spend most of their time shuttling between churches and wedding parties – though the fête chrétienne at the Tourist Hotel is, I’ll later learn, a special occasion. Hosted by something called La Communauté Missionaire Chrétienne Internationale, it is billed as a “croisade d’évangélisation, de guérison, de délivrance et de brisement des liens malsains” – an event that, even with my threadbare French, seems to portend a whole lot of drumming and praising.

Which, feelings of religious tolerance notwithstanding, has its limits. I decide the morning would be better spent in my own sort of soulful contemplation by the lake – somewhere to wrap myself in silence, drink an overpriced coffee, sit with my pen and pad. It is a pleasant walk from town. The roads in Bukavu bend and curve away from the Avenue Lumumba, wrap around the hills. Walking down to the Hotel La Roche – one of Bukavu’s upmarket, lakeside hotels – the city is like a giant construction site. Piles of bricks, rickety wooden scaffolding, men hauling bags of cement on their heads. Rising on large plots of land are the skeletons of two- and three- and four-story villas, rewards for ruling-party stalwarts, the spoils of the mineral war tearing apart South Kivu. Sandwiched between them are their older counterparts: whitewashed towers with million-dollar views, most with Land Cruisers and Prados in the driveways. (Peeking over the wall of one gaudy mansion, I see two kid-sized Hummers on the lawn: they start them young in Bukavu.) Further down, the governor’s mansion – a massive colonial villa, a dozen gardeners clipping and pruning, a colonnade of trees, a mini-Versailles. The road bends again, more construction, a man in a rasta hat grilling brochettes in the shade. At the foot of the hill, a dozen soldiers sitting on chairs and tree stumps next to an unfinished villa – a gift, perhaps, for some decorated general. Next an army base – barracks, canvas tents, the privations of life as a foot soldier. Later someone will tell me it is a “transit camp,” before adding under his breath, “FDLR.” Here is where former Interahamwe come to turn themselves in, lay down their arms. Later they’ll be sent to “reeducation” camps in Rwanda, before integrating again into Rwandan society.

Finally I reach the Hotel La Roche, a big white modernist box set back 50 meters from the lakeshore. It is an architectural nightmare of African nouveau kitsch: sliding glass doors, blue window panes, gaudy curtains, brass fittings. Each of the rooms has a peerless view of the parking lot, yet somehow, this is one of Bukavu’s finest hotels. I manage to sneak a peek into one of the rooms – white-tiled floors, plush faux-leather sofas; I don’t have to go any further to know there are gold sconces on the walls. Still, if you were to raze the hotel, it would be a pleasant enough place. The lawns are well-kept, there is a thatched-roof bar, a pleasant little restaurant that, from the outside at least, looks like a colonial villa. Beside it, built on stilts, another restaurant almost floating over the lake. Out back, scampering over the walls, two mangy little monkeys. Only when I get closer do I see they have ropes tied around their waists, the cooks are keeping them as pets. They live in a miserable little wooden house; one has a panicky, afflicted look, the other is gnawing on a bottlecap. It scampers up the leg of a gardener, begins picking at his hair. I ask if I can snap a picture, and he agrees. When the others begin chanting “franga, franga,” I tell them I have no money to give. “Hakuna franga.” They are sullen, crestfallen, but this is a point of principle: I refuse to give any money to a bunch of monkey-abusing chefs.

When monkeys attack!

Self-portrait, with plastic floral arrangement

Still, there is the lake. I have a vision of a quiet hour of writing, maybe two, listening to the water lapping at the shore. It doesn’t last. The bartender has turned up the soft rock on the stereo – when I ask the waiter to turn it down, it’s just a few beats before the bartender turns it up again. I wait 20 minutes for the waiter to bring my coffee, and when he does, I discover the Thermos is full of hot water. I try to track him down, but he’s vanished, and by the time I have my coffee in front of me my head is throbbing. The coffee suddenly seems like a bad idea; I could probably use a beer instead. I’m jittery, high-strung. I try to calm myself, I watch the pirogues drifting across the lake, I amuse myself with the plastic floral arrangements. It doesn’t help. They are renovating the hotel, the workers are hammering, sawing, the only peace, I imagine, can be found at the bottom of the lake. I pay my bill, trudge moodily up the hill. By the time I find a moto, I’m ready again for lunch at the Tourist.

This is not shaping up to be a good day. I’ve been hoping to make plans with Landry, to contact Justin – he’s returned to Bujumbura for the week – to get the number of his brother, a journalist in Bukavu. But the Zain network has been down since yesterday – I haven’t been able to make a call, to send a text. I appreciate, now, why Landry had lined up his cell phones at the bar earlier this week. He had three of them, with five SIM cards between them – one for his colleagues in Belgium, an MTN SIM for Rwanda, three Congolese SIMs – Zain, Vodacom, CCT – for the inevitable network failings here. “In Congo, you cannot have a network that works every day,” he had said. And so today, it seems, is the day that Zain has decided to take a breather.

At Rendez-Vous, again, I sit stewing over a coffee. I’m not in the mood for another early night, I don’t want to walk the streets by myself in search of adventure. At two, though, there is a breakthrough: the telecom stars have aligned, the Zain gods are again smiling. It is Landry, we make plans to meet at four, the day has been saved. Outside, another wedding party parades by. This, I am told, is a union of great consequence – a high-ranking military figure. A string of SUVs festooned with bows and colorful ropes of garland, army trucks full of soldiers – white-gloved, clutching sabers – in ceremonial dress. The sound of drums – a marching band, crowded into a minivan, beating some festive tune. On the side of the minivan the words “Operation Amani Leo, Sud-Kivu” – this is one of the disastrous, MONUC-backed military operations that has done more harm than good in the hills of eastern Congo. Today, a more peaceful mission. On the side of the road, women ululating and waving their arms.

Outside the hotel there’s a boy, his name is Thierry, he’s 14. He wants to go to America some day – “I would like to go there to see your president,” he says. Already he has seen enough of the poverty in Bukavu, the lack of jobs. He knows the life must be better in America because we have the dollar, and the dollar is strong. “If you give one dollar to a man here, he says, ‘Good! Good! Good!’” says Thierry. “But if you give one dollar to an American man, he says, ‘Bah, what is this?’”

He adds, “You are very absent-minded.”

Landry arrives, sharply, he is wearing a crisp white shirt with flowers embroidered onto the collar and the cuffs. Seeing his latest ensemble has become something of a sport for me. He has brought a friend, Armel – the husband of the sister of Landry’s wife. We pile into the Hilux – another typical day in Congo. Armel is a lawyer, a former human rights worker – he has worked with the UN, in the Hague, for a local NGO. I tell him about a report just published by the International Crisis Group on the Kabila government, the usual litany of rights abuses against civil society, opposition groups. Armel laughs grimly – he is not surprised. The US is sending its top gun in Africa, Johnnie Carson, to discuss these things with Kabila this month. It will be the usual refrain, I’m sure, tying aid to “good governance.” And yet still, despite the reports, the money will pour into the Congo.

We are looking to have a drink, but this is surprisingly hard to arrange on a Saturday afternoon in Bukavu. It is a day for weddings, and Landry’s usual drinking holes have been booked by wedding parties – great swarms of women in tulle, long-limbed, big-hatted; and men in their shiny suits, their sharp lapels. We are circling “La Bote,” the shoe-shaped peninsula, past the houses of the FARDC officers and their families, picturesque old homes, weathered, water-stained, some with satellite dishes planted on the lawns. Soldiers are milling everywhere, sitting on porches, drinking, rifles nearby. I would love to take some pictures, but this is not an option. We reach another bar, Landry hops out to see if there might be room for us inside. Armel points to a long driveway ahead of us, patrolled by a soldier from the elite Republican Guard. It used to be the Cercle Sportif, he says. You could go there with your family, play tennis, go for a swim. “A few years ago, Kabila decided to take it for his home,” says Armel. Now, when the president arrives for his once- or twice-yearly visits to South Kivu, he has those sprawling sporting grounds to himself.

Again, no luck – Landry hops behind the wheel, we drive off. A light rain is falling now, goats are bleating on the side of the road. Armel suggests a place called Bel Air, Landry chuckles, shaking his head. “Bel Air,” he says, like a punchline. Bel Air it is. The bar is hidden down a flight of stairs on the Avenue Lumumba, behind a club called Anges Noirs. At the foot of the stairs, a list of prohibitions: no shorts, no flip-flops, no knives, no guns. The bar is très Congolaise: a split-level concrete patio, dozens of plastic tables and chairs, loud voices, empty bottles. The view over the lake is impressive, the hills green, sublime. We sit beside a pool table, order a round. Two men are racking the balls, breaking, knocking the solids and stripes every which way. The felt of the table is torn, uneven – you have to play the surface the way you would a putting green. Laughter, a commotion, the clinking of bottles. A dark cloud hovers over the lake, brooding, waiting.

We are talking about the situation in South Kivu, and you can tell there are two South Kivus: the city, here, with its Bel Airs and Botes; and upcountry, “the villages,” as Armel calls them. I ask what’s the biggest threat to the villages and he leans forward, lowers his voice. “I think the biggest problem in the villages is the FARDC,” he says – the Congolese army, poorly disciplined, unpaid for months on end. They go to the villages, they take and take. Life has become too hard upcountry – the threats from the army, the FDLR, the militias. You can see the difference in Bukavu, the crowding, says Armel. “I think most of them have come because of the fighting. There are no jobs, they cannot go to their fields,” he says. In the city, there is always a cousin, a brother, an aunt with some room in the house. “In Bukavu, at least, there is some work,” says Armel.

Landry and Armel, of course, represent a small minority in Bukavu – these are men who have worked and studied abroad, they have seen Europe, carry well-stamped passports. Already Armel is looking again to travel – he is applying for jobs with the UN, the Red Cross, using his contacts in the development world. He would like to see more of America – he has been to California, spent time at Stamford. He has a brother he would like to visit, a physician, in New York. When I ask if he would like to live there, too, he makes a fussy face, shakes his head. “Here you can live for $500” a month, he says. “I do not think you can live for $500 in New York.”

One for the road.

We settle our bill, Landry has invited me for dinner at his place, but first another bar, another drink. “Here we say, ‘One for the road,’” he says, adding, when I comment on the oversized bottles of Congolese beer: “It is a long road.” Again we are in the Hilux, it is a short drive, Landry plows onto the sidewalk, where a frightened askari is helping him to park. There is a small ditch on the road’s shoulder, which Landry is struggling to negotiate. “I am using four-wheel drive,” he says, optimistically. Great relief when the vehicle is at rest, the askari still wringing his hands.

We step into Le Saint Laïc. A long, narrow dining room stretches from the entrance, tables crowded to the side. Opposite them bottles of wine in glass display cases, like geological specimens. We enter another dining room in the rear – fat, mirthful men sloshing glasses of beer, women with bad wigs and shapeless dresses. We sit. A band is warming up. People come over to the table to greet Landry. They are playing a CD, old Congolese music from the seventies and eighties. Armel and Landry are nostalgic. “They are playing music from our childhood,” says Armel. Now a short, deferential youth comes over to the table, removes his baseball cap, shakes our hands. He wants to apologize for the live music: this is karaoke night at Le Saint Laïc, but there is a problem with the equipment, he explains. I cannot feign disappointment – live music over Congolese karaoke is, I think, something of a no-brainer. The band is ready: a drummer, a guitarist, a man on a keyboard, three singers moving rhythmically back and forth. They are students, says Landry – he used to do the same thing when he was in university. More broad-shouldered, big-bellied men enter. Women built like fullbacks. Young girls, prostitutes, maybe – cast-offs from the Big Leagues of the Goma expat scene.

Landry gets a call from home – dinner is ready. We are all happily buzzed as we leave the restaurant, the music has done something to me, it’s lifted my spirits. The moon is out, a sharp crescent, like an anchor cast into the dark sea of night in Bukavu. This has turned out to be a beautiful day. At Landry’s house the guard swings the gate open – the place is a mess, says Landry, apologetically, they’re adding another floor. Outside scaffolding climbs the walls, there are bricks piled in the driveway. Landry’s children – six and five – are making gleeful noises from somewhere inside. “Karibu,” says Landry. The place is a palace. The sofas are leather, there is a flat-screen TV, a stereo system, a keyboard with a microphone. (“Sometimes, we have karaoke,” Landry admits.) On the wall, family portraits: Landry and his wife and the kids on Lake Kivu; Landry and his wife, embracing, in front of a studio backdrop of the Dubai skyline. There are shelves cluttered with knick-knacks, the expensive porcelain tchotchkes of African prosperity, and three remote controls on the coffee table. Landry’s sister sweeps in from the dining room. Dinner, she says, is served.

Despite the fact that there are three oversized bottles of beer in my stomach, I have managed to save room for the feast Landry’s sister has prepared. The table is amply set: mounds of foufou, cabbage and beef, rice with onions, frites, fried fish. The conversation has tapered off, we are stuffing our faces – even after I’m full, I pile more cabbage onto my plate. Landry’s sister is a wizard in the kitchen, she brushes aside my marriage proposals – I think it’s implicit, in the rarefied precincts of Chez Landry, that she can do better. Afterward we are back on the sofas, drowsy, content. There is a news segment – some attempt to negotiate a truce with the FDLR and another rebel group. Much head-shaking and tongue-clucking from Armel and Landry. These mediation efforts will end like all the others. The night is winding down – Armel yawns, stretches, pulls himself to his feet. Again we are in the Hilux, bumping over these rough Bukavu roads. Armel lives down the street; I am just around the corner. We make plans to have a parting drink before I go.

At the hotel there is a scene of bedlam, nuptial chaos. If the Belvedere struck me as a forlorn catering hall when I poked my head in last night, it’s apparently because it is, indeed, a catering hall. Tonight it is booked for a wedding party – the music is loud enough to rattle the hotel’s windows. From my room I can see into the main room: well-dressed, well-fed, middle-aged bodies moving slowly across the dancefloor. Somehow, these past few weeks, I’ve grown accustomed to high-decibel lingala and kwasa kwasa and rhumba blaring into the wee hours – it’s a wonder I’ve ever slept any other way. My head is nodding off to 4/4 time, and by 11 o’clock, faster than you can say “Papa Wemba,” I’m out cold.

The fine art of looking fabulous.

Editor’s note: This is the twentieth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 20 – April 9

Almost perfect: the facilities at the Guest House Tourist

After nearly a week at the Hotel Cirezi in Goma, I’d forgotten the simple luxury of having a bathroom en suite. I take my time with the morning ablutions, pad around naked, pop in once, twice to check myself in the mirror. The running water, too, seems a bit gratuitous. I fill the bucket in the tub twice – once to shower, once for the toilet – and then again: it never hurts to have a bucket of water on standby in Africa. Each time I turn the faucet, the sound of Congolese tap water clanking through the pipes is like a symphony.

Breakfast at the Guest House Tourist, too, feels opulent. Three slices of fresh white bread – not for this venerable hotel the dry, chalky hot dog buns of a lesser establishment. The omelette, too, is almost worthy of the name: three eggs, hot, scrambled and liberally soaked in butter. So pleased am I by this feast that’s been included in the price of my room that I can almost forgive the lackluster instant coffee: Star brand, product of Uganda, the same bitter brew that was served up in Goma. It’s a credit to my forward-thinkingness as a traveler par excellence that I thought to pocket a few packets of Nescafe on my last visit to the Ihuzi. This is, admittedly, a far cry from Kenyan AA, but it’s enough to get my motor revving at the start of a long day in Bukavu.

Breakfast at the Guest House Tourist

Outside it is a glorious morning: the sun high, the wind carrying a hint of early spring in New York. Today I have my camera with me, refusing to give in to my self-consciousness as a White Guy With a Camera in Africa – one of my most crippling traveler’s neuroses. In three years I have failed to get over the debilitating inability to take pictures on the street. And today, too, my courage doesn’t last. Seeing the wary stares of some husky mama, the flinty-eyed squint of some idle youth, I lose my nerve. I have a criminal air about me each time my camera comes out. In front of a gas station – the word Mobil faded, almost scrubbed from the building; the pumps rusting with disuse; a gang of youths on the sidewalk, selling gasoline in water bottles and jerry cans – I toy with my camera, sigh, leave it in my pocket. I know this feeling well. Today will be full of photographic disappointment.

Walking along the road, the sun bright on the colorful storefronts, I’m joined by a man in a blue dashiki, a flash drive hanging around his neck. His name is Henry, he is a pastor. “You have to be careful with photographs here,” he warns me. (Vindication!) “They will see you and think you are a spy.” More likely they will invent some mythical photographer’s fee, I say, charge another tax. Henry laughs. His English is flawless – he spent six years studying theology in Nairobi. He tells me the name of his church, but I miss it. Even after all these years in Africa, I’m dumbfounded by the preponderance of Christian denominations and sects. I grew up Greek Orthodox in a Roman Catholic neighborhood; in college, I met Protestants, slightly expanding my religious worldview. Henry tells me his church is based in Indiana, in Terre Haute. He is here coordinating the work of church-run health centers in Bukavu, in South Kivu, far to the north in Oriental province. This name rings a bell – the security situation there, I say, is not too good. Henry laughs. “Even last year I was there, I almost lost my life,” he says. They were driving at night, they had come to a bridge, a gunman wouldn’t let them pass. The driver stepped on the gas and drove right through him. “That driver was very brave,” says Henry, laughing.

In the health centers it is hard work; it is the church institutions in Congo that so often fill the needs left by a government in absentia. But there is very little funding: the church in Terre Haute cut its ties with the clinics a few years ago. “They used to support us,” says Henry, “but they have stopped, because of mismanagement.” The previous director was corrupt – now Henry has stepped in to replace him. The church wants to restore its financial assistance, but they are cautious. “They have to be good stewards of God’s money,” he says.

Around us the clamor of street life, commerce, hustling. The city rises and falls over the hills, there are explosions of green, everything tumbles down to the lake. I comment on Bukavu’s beauty and Henry, who has lived here most of his life, sighs. “Because of the demographic situation,” he says, “it has lost some of its beauty.” People have come from the countryside – some fleeing violence, others looking for a better life – and there are the high birth rates, too, of the Congolese. Much of the city looks like a building site. “They are just building everywhere,” says Henry. “There are no regulations here.”

A new building being built

We part – Henry has to mail some documents, he will spend the morning moving from shop to shop, printing, photocopying, mailing – and on I go, along Avenue Lumumba. A man stops me, his name is Iragi Kadusi – he writes it in my notebook – and he is looking for work. He has spent a year in Nairobi, he had to leave when his visa expired, and now he is stuck here in Bukavu. There are no jobs, no opportunities, he says. The Congo has a “dirigent mauvais” – a bad leader. An old woman comes up to us, she has one arm, a beggar. Iragi shoos her away – there is no telling how much charity the white man has, you wouldn’t want him spreading it around to every last beggar on the street. I give Iragi a hard look. It is hard, now, to feel too charitable toward him. He wonders if I might have a job for him in America. Or maybe just something for transport, for “transfert”?

Down the hill, toward the great dirt roundabout described, optimistically, in my guidebook as the “site of future monument.” This was written in 2006. There is no sign of construction, of any forethought toward whatever future totem – Kabila with a dove on his shoulder? – might someday rise here. The future, in Congo, is such an indefinable quantity. Better to play it safe – to leave this dirt-filled lot, crisscrossed by schoolboys and soldiers and weary old women, and wait to see how things pan out ten years down the line.

Site of future monument

To the right, the port road. Across from me, a set of concrete stairs climbing the hill. I have seen these secret stairways around Bukavu, full of mystery and promise. I start to climb, it is a weary slog, the sun is strong, the stairs seem to go on forever. Women huffing along, dresses hugging their thick curves, shoes impractical for such feats of mountaineering. Near the top an old man, a dignified gent in a hat and blazer, wearing the pouty, stricken look of old age. These stairs, under this sun, must be brutal for him. And for me, too. I stop to catch my breath, take in the view. A young man and woman, students, stop beside me. We begin to talk, they are eager, full of curiosity. The university where they are studying is just nearby, they say. Would I like to see it?

It is a pleasant walk. The hilltop is wooded, shaded, a small act of mercy. Here now, says Gilbert, is the Institute Supérieure pour la Développement Rurale – a specialized institute, it attracts students from Goma, from Kinshasa. There are workers everywhere, they are renovating, building a new wing. The classrooms have wooden benches and chalkboards and dusty windows. Students loafing around, a Friday-afternoon lethargy about them. Outside, four copy machines set up on wooden tables in the dirt. A girl, bored, is sitting under an umbrella. Extension cords wind around her bare feet. Gilbert takes me through the halls, shows me the dormitories – crowded little rooms, just enough space for a bed and a desk. A boy sits outside, cleaning his shoes. Curtains in the doorways. Cleaning women in the yard, hanging laundry on the lines. I look into a window – a boy sitting on the edge of his bed, two giant Manchester United posters covering the wall. The place has an air of weary negligence, of university bureaucrats sitting at their ledgers, trying to reconcile impossible sums.

Gilbert wants to take me now back to town – there is a road that winds past his school and the Catholic University of Bukavu and down a beautiful, wooded hill. He wants to show me his home – it is just here, “juste ici,” he says, hoping I won’t refuse. I am, in truth, getting tired of his company, struggling to follow his French. I would like to hop on a moto back to town, have lunch, but the house is just here, he said, waving ambiguously down the hill.

We are back at the roundabout now, the “site of future monument,” and Gilbert has phoned his taxi driver, suggesting the house is not juste ici, after all. The sun is strong now, we are trudging uphill; I’m trying to think of the politest way possible to rid myself of Gilbert. Now a car toots its horn – Gilbert’s taxi, brazenly pulling onto the sidewalk. Gilbert negotiates something with the driver, takes a seat in the front. The windows won’t budge in the backseat, and grumpy indeed is the travel writer staring sullenly out the window. Curse this Congolese boy and his hospitality – curse his home! Realizing, of course, what a bastard I can be.

Bukavu is scrolling by – there is the market, there is the Hotel Tourist. “Juste ici,” it seems, is shorthand for “Kinshasa.” Finally we arrive at the gate of an opulent villa – three stories, whitewashed, crowning a hilltop overlooking the lake. My first thought is: Gilbert can pay for the goddamn cab himself. The gardener opens the gate, there is another gardener, a cook, a cleaning woman. An SUV in the driveway; in the backyard, a satellite dish about the size of a hockey rink. We go into the sitting room and voilà, all the furnishings of middle-class Congolese life: stiff armchairs, chintz curtains, a coffee table with a plastic floral centerpiece. Sconces like you wouldn’t believe. There is a small Sharp TV and a Sharp VHS and a DVD player and a Sony Playstation. The wiring is exposed, it runs up the wall like ivy. An older man sits on the sofa – not his father, says Gilbert, but the family pastor. He is a pleasant, avuncular man in shiny pants and an Adidas soccer jersey. Gilbert offers me a Fanta and disappears from the room. The pastor is across from me and sits there in amiable silence. “C’est une bonne maison,” I observe. “Bonne maison,” he says. “Kabiza.” I soon realize the Swahili-speaking pastor’s French is worse than my own. He sits back in his seat – on the wall above him, a wooden plaque reads: “Christ is the head of this house.” We sit there together, quiet, smiling, making embarrassed eye contact. After ten minutes Gilbert returns with a small basket, inside of which, wrapped in a handkerchief, are two bottles of Fanta. He pours me a citron and shares an orange with the pastor. Then the three of us are sitting together with nothing to say.

I have been in this same room before, it seems – the stiff upright furniture, the doilies, the brass fixtures on the walls. And I have endured these same silences, have battled through language barriers and sat quietly sipping Fantas. It is sweet and frustrating and enduringly strange. I am grateful for this hospitality – it is touching, in its own way. But how long can we go on sitting like this? An hour? Two? Isn’t Gilbert bored of my company yet? We’ve had almost nothing to say for an hour, and yet I know that unless I invent some excuse – “Pole sana. J’ai un rendezvous maintenant.” – we’ll be in this sitting room till dusk.

From the kitchen, now, a commotion, voices. Heads pop into the room – two brothers, a family friend. They arrange themselves around the coffee table, they want to know what I do, why I’m here. Good questions, all. We struggle through the usual explanations – I am a writer, a journalist – and then our momentum slows. My French is full of useful phrases – “What time does this bus leave?”, “Is it safe there?”, “Where is your boyfriend right now?” – but I have no knack for small talk. I tell them I am going to South Africa for the World Cup, and their interest is revived. Who do they support? France, says Gilbert; Spain, says one brother; Italy, another. Giorgio, or Jojo – the youngest, a loudmouth, a little wiseass, I know I would come to despise him – asks if I would like to play football. Not the real thing, of course – we are in rarefied precincts here, we get our entertainment from TV screens. But alas, sighs Gilbert, there is no power. In this palace, all the comforts of the Western world – but outside, it is still Congo.

Gilbert, second from right, with family and friends

We walk through the garden and up toward the front gate, and Jojo, or Giorgio, is snapping at the gardener – a meek, passive youth, he is terrified of this little lord of the manor. Christ, spare me these spoiled rich kids! Outside Gilbert offers to walk me back to the hotel. He stops to greet shopkeepers, classmates, two nuns. Finally we are at the hotel, shaking hands, parting. He says if I ever want to “reposer,” mi casa es su casa, more or less. I thank him – I am, in my own bitchy way, grateful for his company this afternoon.

Again, lunch at the Guest House Tourist. The wood-paneled dining room, the TV blaring music videos, the fat Congolese drinking bottles of Primus. I have not seen any restaurants along the main road, and the other hotels – catering to business travelers, upmarket tourists tracking lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Biéga National Park – are no doubt the sort that quote their prices in dollars. For my 2,300 francs – about two and a half bucks – I am happy to spend my days elbow-deep in riz and petit pois and roti de boeuf.

Accept no substitutes: the Guest House Tourist

After lunch, a food coma sets in. And a general exhaustion, too. It has been three weeks now – I am reminding myself of this each day – and with both time and finances dwindling, end-of-trip fatigue is coming over me. How easy would it be, I think: a speedboat to Goma, a Virunga Express from Gisenyi – I could leave Bukavu in the morning and be in Kigali by the afternoon. A familiar bed and familiar faces. Plus I could finally put the finishing touches on these rambling notes.

Just up the road from the hotel I’d spotted a small snack bar, Rendez-Vous, during my morning walk. It turns out to be just what I’d been hoping for this afternoon – a Western-style coffee shop. The owner, or manager – a young white woman with, I think, a Spanish accent – is pacing the room in a denim skirt and high heels. Two young Congolese girls, slender, pretty, sit sipping Fantas; in the back room an aid worker, an attractive brunette, is sitting on a sofa. There are paintings and batiks on the wall, photos of past clients making merry, a glass counter crowded with croissants, cookies, cakes. It is a cheerful, homely place – like leaving the Congo for the afternoon.

Outside clouds gather, rain begins to fall – a passing shower. Horns are suddenly honking up and down the road: a wedding processional passes, a Hummer and a Mercedes and a string of SUVs. Youths, street vendors, come into the café, selling belts, kitchens knives, outlet adapters. Then a man, elegantly dressed – a flamboyant jacket, the lapels threaded with silver. Surely this is a sapeur, Congo’s famous fashionistas. Where else in the world can you walk through a crowded slum and find men in Ferragamo shoes, Dior shirts, Valentino pants? It is their philosophy, their movement, a way of life: men who have rejected violence, rejected war, who have embraced the sole dictum of looking fabulous. This man’s shoes are like mirrors – he disappears into the backroom, heels clicking. I finish my cappuccino. This place has been a happy find. The menu says, “Call ahead or send an SMS for your order.”

The caffeine has been only a slight pick-me-up. It is after five, I feel listless – I can’t imagine more Primuses with Landry tonight. I kill time online, catching up on the news – I’ve been so detached, disconnected these past few weeks. The baseball season has started, Tiger Woods is 4-under at the Masters – once these things would have mattered to me. An email from the New York Times – my Bujumbura story, finally set to run on May 2. I have a quick look at the edit – the lede, the only part of the story I was proud of, has been eviscerated. I don’t have the strength to read the rest.

The sky is still overcast, the sun won’t be out again until tomorrow. I change into pants, throw on a jacket – this whole musty wardrobe, I can’t wait to cast it off in South Africa. I am no sapeur; I do not feel fabulous. Bundled thusly against the evening chill, I decide to walk with no destination in mind.

The boredom of travel – the part they forget to mention in the guidebooks. Surely I could start a conversation with a stranger, walk into a bar by myself, find some way to pass the hours. But I’m in one of those in-between moods, restless, indecisive. I don’t want to struggle through another low-level conversation in French, I don’t want to be alone. I walk along Patrice Lumumba, another jobless youth to keep me company, monsieur, asking for a job, for money. It is dark now, the streetlights are on. The city is still busy, the market, the shops. I stand outside a bar, partly in the shadows, watching, listening to the music of daily life. How accustomed I am to strange voices, foreign tongues. Passing headlights, the beeping of horns. To save gas, the moto drivers shut their engines at the top of the hill. They coast by in the darkness, the headlights black, they float by like shadows.

Suddenly, up and down the avenue, the power goes out. The shops are dark, the streetlights – I can feel the skin go prickly on the back of my neck. Part of me feels safer, inconspicuous, in the dark – Shakespeare’s Henry V, circling among the troops incognito. But the moment passes; I’m scared shitless. I hail a moto, go bumping back up the hill toward the safety of the Guest House Tourist. Now the sounds of generators thrumming to life; some of the shopkeepers light candles, paraffin lamps. In the hotel dining room, men in suits crowded around a table full of empty bottles. They have come from some wedding, some celebration – all day the cars and trucks crept along the avenue, full of smartly dressed party-goers. There is wrapping paper on the floor, someone has gotten a gift – for what? I greet them, they are neither welcoming nor un-. I feel compelled to try something different for dinner, to have a coffee by the lake. But I think about money, again, always the money. I can’t afford a taxi down the hill; and besides, I need to save a few bucks for another round of drinks with Landry.

Instead I am back on the street, they are building a new hotel, Belvedere, next to the Tourist. There is already a restaurant, open for business. The dining room is vast, like a catering hall, but there are just a few tables scattered across the room. It is like seeing a handful of old couples shuffling across an empty dancefloor. Music pumps in from a wedding party in the next room; a DJ exhorts the crowd in French. The menu is full of dollar signs, it is three times the price of the Tourist. I apologize, I put it bluntly: “C’est très cher.” Probably they will laugh when I leave, already I can hear them repeating after me, “C’est très cher,” not kindly.

Outside more women in party dresses, and men with wide lapels. A well-dressed young man comes down the street with a live goat, he stops at the Belvedere, a girl in high heels comes rushing down the stairs to greet him. The goat bleats – probably he is as confused by all of this as I am. Then they go upstairs, one after the other: the pretty girl, the goat, the smartly dressed boy bringing up the rear.

Here there are many thieves.

Editor’s note: This is the nineteenth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 19 – April 8

It is the boating hour, it seems. On my way to the port, motos stream down the road, carrying women with great vinyl market bags, and men holding suitcases on their laps. Those without money to spare walk along the roadside, luggage on their heads and shoulders, children in tow. The sun has still not crested the hilltops. Down below, the port is in chaos. Passengers, porters, soldiers exercising a dubious sort of crowd control. Little swift speed boats and creaky passenger ferries bob on the water. Men writing out tickets, holding wads of cash and slips of paper, as if they’re on their way to the races.

An old gunboat at the port

My arrival does not go unnoticed: quickly I am surrounded by officials, helpful and genial, delivering me every which way. I am escorted into a room in what looks like a warehouse, with just two weathered wooden desks, an empty filing cabinet, and a dozen bags of cement piled on the floor. A man opens a dusty ledger and writes my name, my passport number, my ticket details. There is a dollar tax – voilà, I am stamped and back outside, turning hopefully toward the boat. Alas, this would have been too easy. There is a line, a crowd of Congolese, and another official waiting with another stamp. She takes my ticket, tears a tiny notch in the side, stamps a small piece of paper, staples this paper to my ticket. Another $1 tax is paid. I turn to go and a man, an official, an amiable older fellow who speaks some English, stops me. “Take care your sacks,” he says. “Here there are many thieves.” Yeah, no kidding. I lug my things along, wary of flinty-eyed pickpockets, but there is no need for such subtlety here. A portly man, another customs official, in a soiled white shirt and a crooked beret, stands before me, grinning like the cat who made the canary pay a dubious customs duty. There is, he says, another tax – he pulls a stamp and inkpad from his pocket, smiling drunkenly. “You must be the guy who shakes down white people for more money, huh?” I ask. “Oui,” he says, laughing merrily. Five hundred francs exchange hands. I have now been triply stamped and approved. I’m wary of more taxes, but no, my duty to the Congolese tax authorities has been done, I am free to go. The port road is crowded – women selling peanuts, ndazi, cassava, sausages; men holding wheels of cheese. Crowds pushing forward, hysterical cries of farewell. Sacks, boxes, battered suitcases, jerry cans. I buy two loaves of ndazi; my change is paid out in peanuts. Now I am ready to board the Miss Rafiki.

A passenger ferry chugs into port

The lower deck, second class, is already crowded, business being done from the windows with the hustlers on the dock. I ascend to the higher precincts – there is a first-class lounge with thin-pile carpeting and banquettes and TVs, but I go further still, all the way to the top. I want to spend this morning with the sun and the wind on my face. This is a certain character type, I suspect – something to do with freedom. There are two seating areas, plastic lawn chairs arranged over strips of Astroturf. Across the bay the M/V Salama, its deck a riot of colors, chugs into port. Closer to us the M/V Kivu King – a canôt rapide, a $50 passage – idles with the muscular self-assurance of expensive machinery. A group of white passengers waits patiently to board. Below me the dock teems with crowds, porters, soldiers, farewells. An angry shouting match ensues: two passengers, well-dressed men, appear to have missed a stamp. Near them laughing, idling. Husky, self-possessed women accustomed to long voyages – they carry hampers full of food, they hold their children close to them. Bread-sellers holding up loaves from a distance, hoping to catch someone’s eye at the final moment. A boy selling sausages from a plastic basket is being bullied by some soldiers for a minor, probably made-up infraction. The boy cowers, his lower lip trembles. One of the soldiers takes off his belt, holding it in the air with violent intent.

Now others are filling the deck: two soldiers, customs officials in white shirts and epaulets, two girls – students, maybe, from the university, spending the weekend with family in Bukavu. A man in a red baseball cap joins me, he is smiling, he has a broad nose and Oriental eyes. He is wearing a black jacket with many zippers and, beneath that, a t-shirt with President Obama’s smiling visage on it. His name is Alexis, he says; he lives in Bukavu and has five children: Celine, Melvin, Alexis Charlotte, Alex, and another I forget. He says he is a truck driver; he has just made the two-day journey from Kisangani to Goma. It is nothing, he says, a thousand kilometers, but the road is good. From Goma to Bukavu, on the other hand, is a three-day drive: three days to travel 200 kilometers along the lake’s shore. We shake our heads, laughing, marveling. Now he is going home to see his children – sometimes, he will not see them for two months at a time. Then he will go to Uvira, across the border from Bujumbura, to pick up an SUV he will deliver to Kisangani. He will drive to Bukavu, take the truck on the ferry, and then drive again all the way from Goma to the far north.

Alexis, aboard the Miss Rafiki

The horn blows – not a loud, dignified blast, but a dying noise, like something you’d hear from under the hood of an ‘87 Buick Regal. It sounds again, and we’re off. The port recedes, the evergreen hills of Goma, with Nyiragongo looming and puffing in the background. The morning is cool, the sun is out, spirits are high at the start of our voyage. Over the side I see the crowds leaning out in second class – men’s cuffs, women’s wrists ringed by gold bracelets, a pair of hands clutching a rosary. Yesterday I read a story, a ferry – the Amani – ran aground off Idjwi island. MONUC was called in, but no one was hurt. The Marinette Express arrived and shuttled everyone to safety.

Leaving Goma

I am starting, now, with our smooth passage, with the sun on my hands and face, to feel the effects of last night. I was lucky to grab three hours’ sleep, and now, tired and sun-warmed, the next five ours given over to the journey, I close my eyes and go numb. It has been just three weeks, even less, since I left Kigali, but it’s felt like a lifetime. The plodding progression south from Gisenyi, the fiasco at the Bukavu border. Now, a week later, having run an end-around through Goma – a busy week, a very good week – I am preparing myself again for Bukavu. Excited, but exhausted, too. I’m running out of money, I miss the familiar faces in Kigali. I have piles of writing to do. And then – incredible to think – in just two weeks I’ll be in Johannesburg.

Passing the Congo, passing the hills of Rwanda. Islands, small green domes, the hills planted with bananas, cabbage, manioc. It is an Edenic scene – but no one would ever think such thoughts about this place. It is hard to imagine how I’ll write about this country later, what little of it I’ve seen. Goma, to me, is not an adventure; yet surely there are travelers, the armchair adventure-seekers, who will cross the Gisenyi border for a day, just to get a Congolese stamp in their passports. (“It’s almost like a little visit to hell,” said the man at the Serena in Gisenyi.) This sort of travel is almost pathologically dishonest. But what, then, have I accomplished? How to write about the place, how to describe these lives, these desires? Je cherche la travaille. J’ai besoin d’argent. Je veux apprendre d’anglaise. Je veux une femme. Je veux vivre. The life of modern Africa, of the city, of its shanties and sprawl, of its Dickensian dreams and dramas.

At the bow of the boat the men are crowded, shouting, laughing, arguing, pointing at this or that thing on some distant hill. A man in a windbreaker with the word “Hooch” across the back. Another guzzling Primus. The women sit gathered on the deck behind them, piled among the luggage and potato sacks, using suitcases and duffel bags for pillows. Infants hidden under blankets. A Congolese flag snaps briskly on its pole. Soon the clouds are low, the wind picks up, a light rain begins to fall. Tarps are unfurled, bearing the UNICEF logo. Somewhere the sound of a child crying, the rustling of bodies under jackets. When the rain lets up the tarps are folded away. Everyone stands stiffly, facing the wind.

The life of the lake. Hours pass. Small fishing boats row beside us, young boys perched at the helm. Yesterday a boat was swamped in Rwandan waters, six were killed. It was carrying genocide survivors to a commemoration ceremony in Kibuye. Boats drifting, gliding. Across the lake there are storm clouds, they are moving away from us, you can see dark curtains of rainfall draped across the hills. We pass a small island, about the size of a baseball diamond, crowned by a solitary house. It is owned by a Canadian man of Congolese origin, I am told. There are a few men, gardeners, tending to the lawns. On the grass there is a small gazebo, the roof thatched with banana leaves. Maybe the owner is in the kitchen, or the bedroom. Maybe he’s in Montreal.

Approaching Bukavu

The unlovely port

Now the city in the distance, the houses rising up the hills. It takes forty minutes for us to finally pull into port. Dozens of fishing boats are in the bay, sitting in neat military rows – no one can explain why they do this. Metalworkers are building a new ship, there is a great noise of banging and welding and blasting. The dock is crowded. Suddenly, I’m struck by nerves. Somewhere in that loud throng is undoubtedly another official with another tax, or a problem with my visa. I have just counted my money on the boat: three hundred bucks, just enough for a week, I imagine. My bribe allowance is minimal. I step off the boat and, sure enough, am pulled to the side. Not some portly immigration official this time, not a policeman with menacing, opaque sunglasses, but a woman – short, brisk, in a flowery dress that hugs her body. She has a lanyard around her neck and a list – passenger’s names, obscure notations – that gives her an air of officialdom. She wants to see my passport – there is another form to fill out, she says, surely another fee – and then we stand there, getting jostled and bumped, waiting for any other “étranger” to materialize.

There are none – it is just me, she is visibly deflated. Today there will be just a small payout. She cleaves a path through the crowd – really, this bustling little woman is all business – and I follow her quickly swaying hips with appreciation. A building, a long low shed, ahead of us. She unlocks a padlock, opens the door; there is a small room with a desk in the corner, a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. For the second time today, I am standing in the sort of room where political dissidents undoubtedly have the soles of their feet flayed. I fill out the form, another tax – 1,000 francs – is paid. All things considered, there have been none of the shakedowns I’d feared: my grand total for the day amounts to about four bucks. Outside, a taxi driver is waiting. I ask for a moto, but this sets off cries of alarm. The woman, strangers in the crowd, tell me it is not safe to take a moto with my big bag – the word “securité” is in much circulation. Probably this driver is somebody’s cousin. I succumb, I am seven bucks the lighter. We crunch over the gravel, back from the lot. My camera, my passport, my phone – all the essentials are exactly where I’d left them. Around the port, a sprawling marketplace takes shape: brightly painted dukas, women squatting by the road, selling vegetables and shoes. Chaos, Congolese chaos. Now we are racing toward the city.

Suddenly, it is all too much for me – the sleepless night, the tumult of the port; not to mention I haven’t eaten all day, I’m in caffeine withdrawal. The challenge of this new city overwhelms me. I convince myself I’m wasting my time here, that I could be on tomorrow’s boat back to Goma instead. Outside my window the city looks rundown: the weather-stained buildings, the crumble of roads, the sky low and gray. The feeling I have is ominous – the day bears a mark of failure.

Until suddenly, literally, the clouds part. The city is flooded with sunlight. We are on a wide avenue now, and the streets are full of life, color. Art Decos line the road, the hard lines and soft palettes of some colonial architect. The mayor’s office is the color of a cloudless sky. Palm trees, women sitting under beach umbrellas. We turn a corner and voilà, there is the lake, blue-gray, endless, the peninsulas of Bukavu poking into it. The fears are gone; I have suddenly warmed to the place. We pass a market, and cell phone shops, and salons with their murals of well-coiffured men who look like Sinbad. It is a long drive – I feel less ripped-off by driver, who strikes me, now, as an alright guy. We arrive at the Guest House Tourist. “Voici,” he says. There is a small sidewalk restaurant, a UN compound across the road. It looks like a fine base for the next couple of days.

Certainly I’ll be able to stretch my dollar here. For $25 my room comes with a good bed, an armoire, a bathroom with running water. It is positively cozy. Downstairs I dig into the plat du jour – a plate of rice, peas and beef for 2,300 francs, or less than $3. I am hungry enough to have another, but the cold shock of my accounting on the boat – the fact that even on a tight budget, I can barely make it through another week – has me on my best behavior. I’ve been scared stringent. Across the street I check my email – there is a small library, the books donated by some American church group, and an Internet café full of second-hand laptops – and then I am on the street, facing Bukavu.

It is late in the day, just after four; the sky is low, the weather is good for walking. This is, I’ll soon learn, the only avenue worthy of the name in Bukavu: it stretches from the Rwandan border to the governor’s mansion at the end of the shoe-shaped peninsula they call “la bote.” Aid-group SUVs barrel past, just a handful, and UN lorries full of MONUC soldiers. Taxis creep by, honking their horns. There are no minibuses in Bukavu, I’ll later learn; passengers share taxis-voitures that drive back and forth along the Avenue Patrice Lumumba. Motos, less brazen than in Goma. The drivers and passengers are required by law to wear helmets. The road is busy, but it is nothing like the Sake road – none of the endless bottlenecks, none of the smoke and grit hanging in the air.

Outside an old Art Deco I find a few children gathered on the sidewalk. They are playing a game with bottlecaps, they’ve arranged them in the formations of two football teams playing a 4-4-2. A torn bit of playing card, a king of hearts, is the ball. One of the boys sends a bottlecap flying toward a milk carton in the shape of a goal.

Already I like the feel of this city – there is, as the French say, a je ne sais quoi to this handsome avenue, to the relaxed traffic on the street, the workers casually strolling home in the clear late-day sunlight. Along the road, constant commerce: women selling plastic floral arrangements, ropes of garland, hard little tomatoes, high heels, children’s shoes, men’s shoes, hard-boiled eggs, oranges that look like limes, hand mirrors, burnished picture frames, duffel bags and suitcases, pursues, more plastic floral arrangements, wall clocks, LCD lamps you power like wind-up toys. A man is selling second-hand books on the steps of a shop – school texts, English-language primers, romance novels by someone called Gérard de Villiers. Two MONUC trucks have emptied onto the street, causing bedlam. The Uruguayans are surrounded by men with blue jeans, socks, belts. Boys come up to me and call me “amigo.” Everyone has something to sell.

It is late and the market sounds like the floor of the stock exchange, people coming and going, men carrying pairs of shoes and looking hopefully at passersby. The women have spread out their blankets on the sidewalk, they’re selling vegetables, but also they’re laughing, gossiping, braiding each other’s hair. Their voices are loud, hysterical, their eyes shrewd. Young boys pass carrying buckets of soda on their heads. They rattle their bottle-openers against the glass, some are musical, they sound like xylophones. It’s an effective marketing tool – you can hear the sound over the din of the traffic. I buy a Fanta citron, sit on the steps, watch the street. Then I hop on a moto and head back to the hotel.

What I have in mind is a quiet night with my notebook, a few extra hours in bed to make up for what I missed last night. Only the phone is ringing, it’s my friend Landry, a Ph.D. student I’d met in Cyangugu last week. He is surprised to hear I’m already in Bukavu. There is no time to protest: he wants to swing by the hotel in 30 minutes to greet me. Reluctantly, I agree. I have a feeling this night will pass in a blur of brochettes and Primus. With time to kill I again pop into the Internet café across the street, anxious for word on some proposals I’d sent to editors earlier in the week. The connection is bad – Lena, a plump, friendly girl, the cashier, asks where I’m staying, offering to fetch me when the connection improves. You do not often see such customer service in Congo, though I am aware, too, of other motives. We sit outside; she asks me about America – “Chez Obama,” she calls it. They teach her some English at school, but it is not enough, she says, she would like to learn more. Next year she will go to university – to study economics, maybe, or medicine. She wants to finish her degree, work for a few years – marriage is still a long way off. Do I have a wife, she asks. I tell her I don’t. I want to work for a few years, too, I say. She says in Congo, if you’re not married by the time you turn 25, people will think there’s something wrong with you. I tell her in New York, it’s common for people to marry at 35, 40. She exclaims softly and shakes her head. It is an incredible figure.

Landry arrives at the hotel looking sharp, Congolese, in a bright orange shirt made from something frilly and European. He wants to show me the city, shrugging off my protests. “Bukavu is not a big town,” he says. “It’s just one road. We can do it in 30 minutes.” We drive once along the Avenue Lumumba, as far as the governor’s mansion, then drive back. The road is crowded with pedestrians, shopping, haggling, strolling in the cool evening air. It is my favorite time of day – the music pumps from the shops, the bars are beginning to fill. Landry turns down a side street, points out expensive hotels as landmarks. We reach a busy commercial strip that has only been built in the past year – new shops are rising, there is scaffolding, bricks everywhere. Landry points out his wife’s shop – she trades in clothes, shoes, she’s in Istanbul on business. Things here have been looking up for the past year, he says. “If we have the security here in Congo, I think Bukavu will be a very big town,” he says.

We park near the hotel – there is a bar nearby he wants to show me. It is a short stroll. I am asking Landry about other countries he’s visited, places he would like to go. South Africa? He has never been, he’s heard a lot about the crime, the violence. “It is not like here,” he says, disapprovingly. At least here you can walk in the street, you can take a beer outside. Not often do you expect to hear extolled the virtues of the security situation in eastern Congo.

The bar is behind a red gate, there are three or four huts for private parties and a bunch of tables scattered across the courtyard. The place is full – Landry has a few words with the waiter and voilà, another table materializes. He has greetings, words for everyone. “Bukavu is very small,” he says. “It is easy to have relationships with everyone.” We order beers – the oversized bottles so popular in the Great Lakes region. The place is loud, lively. “Here, it is not possible to have a day pass without taking a beer,” says Landry. It seems to me part of the joyfulness, the free-spiritedness, for which the Congolese are known – but no, says Landry, it is the Rwandans who are to blame. When they fled after the genocide in 1994 and came pouring into the Congo, he says, they brought their hard-drinking culture with them. Landry knows Rwanda well – he teaches at a college in Kigali, he does his research in Nyungwe. His Ph.D., he says, is on something called “nitrogen siding” – it involves taking soil and leaf samples, the explanation flies over my head. Every two weeks he has to travel to Nyungwe to collect his samples. It is a long day – the forest is cold, it is always raining. The Ph.D. racket, it seems, leaves something to be desired. It is not an easy life for Landry. He spends three, six months out of the year in Belgium, studying at the University of Ghent. The progress toward his Ph.D. is slow: the life in Ghent is expensive, and he’s not allowed to work in Belgium. He has to return to Bukavu, pursue his businesses, put some money aside for his family. Last year he began to build a house on a plot of land he bought for $35,000. In Belgium, he said, you had to scrape by to survive – here you could start some projects to invest in the future. These were his people here, too. “In Bukavu, people are very quiet. They have time to hear you, to see what you have to say,” he says. “It is not like Europe, or Kinshasa.”

You get the sense in the Kivus, when you are talking about Kinshasa, that you are talking about another country. Under Mobutu, these regions were antagonists. After the war to overthrow him, and during the successive Kabila regimes, it has been the weakness of the Kinshasa government – and, by extension, its poorly paid, poorly trained army – that has allowed the security situation here to spin out of control. Landry has lived most of his life in Congo; he remembers when things were bad, and then really bad, just a few years ago. “Maybe some days, you could not leave the house,” he says, “because some people” – rebels, government soldiers – “have come from a village to get food, to take beer.” The current peace, the stability, has only been in place for a year, but the people are hopeful. Buildings are popping up everywhere – real estate prices are skyrocketing. Landry hopes that the current government will recognize the importance of stability in the region. “If there is a problem in the interior,” he says, “it is not a Bukavu problem, it is not a Kivu problem – it is a Congolese problem.” And yet Landry himself knows Kinshasa, he knows the cynicism there – the believe that the government’s duties run out as soon as you reach the city limits.

We are on our second beers, but I’ve given up: Landry might blame their drinking on Rwanda, but I still can’t keep up with these Congolese. My stomach is full, weighed down by nearly 140cL of Primus; my head is light. Landry gets behind the wheel and steers us carefully down Patrice Lumumba. At the hotel we part warmly. I don’t even slow in the restaurant, I’ve drunk away my appetite and can barely keep my eyes open as I stumble up the stairs. The bed is stiff; I’ve been thinking about it all day. It’s ten hours before I open my eyes to the first traces of daylight.

The weather is not good for them.

Editor’s note: This is the twelfth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 12 – April 1

Coffee, again, at the Hotel du Lac. After yesterday’s catastrophic failures at the border, I’m oddly at peace with myself this morning. I’ve faced, I think, the worst of my demons. Today, my fate is in the hands of Etienne and Justin – both of whom had promised to lobby on my behalf throughout the night. For this first hour of what will turn out to be a grand April Fool’s joke on this particular April Fool, I can tell myself I’ve done about as much, so far, as I can possibly do.

In the deep end, in Cyangugu.

Justin calls just a few minutes after ten – he is on his way to Cyangugu. Soon we’re sitting together on the terrace of the Hotel du Lac, and he’s sharing the bad news. “I do not know what the problem is in Bukavu,” he says, shaking his head. South Kivu’s internal politics have been simmering; the province is a mess. The governor has been summoned to Kinshasa to explain himself. In Bukavu, the opposition is agitating for power. “They are trying to get the commandment of Bukavu,” says Justin. His uncle – some low-level cog, I suspect, in the ruling party machine – is afraid to cause trouble at such a critical moment for the party. Justin sighs. “The weather is not good for them,” he says. His uncle can’t step in on my behalf. Justin has done all he could.

When bad news comes, I prefer to take it all in one dose. By half-past ten, with still no word from Etienne, I decide to play what I suspect is my final card. Etienne’s voice is strained when he picks up the phone – I know the news is not good. The director in Goma has been trying his colleague in Bukavu throughout the night – still no answer. The message, for Etienne, is clear. “I think he is working with those men,” he says. His voice is deflated; my spirits sink. With the failure of this powerful maneuver, I know I’m out of options. Etienne wishes me luck with whatever I decide. “I’m sorry I have failed on my side,” he says.

Justin can see my mood has soured. He, too, is out of advice for me. With the door in Bukavu having slammed in my face, though, I’ve shifted from despair to resolve. It is hardly eleven; I can still make Gisenyi by nightfall. The day would be wasted – a grim daisy-chain of bumpy bus rides through the Rwandan hinterlands – but there’s nothing stopping me from strolling into Congo tomorrow morning. I share my plan with Justin. It’s clear this is the only way. Now I find myself trying to console him. He’s taken these past few days awfully hard. Though he knows better than I do the headaches and hurdles of life in the Congo, his pride in his country has been wounded. “It is a problem with Kabila,” he says. “A guest comes to knock on your door, you have to open first. This is not good politics.” He is not surprised, but still: the Congo has let him down.

With Justin, at the Hotel du Lac.

We embrace with great warmth – it is humbling how hard he and Etienne have lobbied for me – and say goodbye to the Hotel du Lac, to Cyangugu. I promise to keep him posted on my progress – despite the change in plans, I should still be in Bukavu some time next week – and off he goes, his bright white sneakers beating a path up the hill.

Now I’ve shifted into travel mode. It’s close to eleven: if I want to reach Gisenyi by nightfall, I probably should have left two hours ago. My mood is brisk. Money is exchanged – my stack of U.S. dollars has been dwindling all week – sweet loaves of ndazi bread are bought for the long journey, and soon I’m on the Horizon Bus to Kampala, by way of Kigali, the seats all but empty as we chug up the hill toward Kamembe.

Leaving Cyangugu, the bay glittering, sunlight glinting off the roofs in the slums of Bukavu, a powerful feeling catches in my throat. This has been a memorable week, and I’m oddly at peace as Bukavu disappears behind a bend in the road. For all the moronic waste of today’s journey, I don’t regret having come all this way only to be turned away at the border. Yesterday was educational; these, the border official might have said to me, are the facts of life. (Thinking of that legless man, the force of his shoulders, the short brisk strides and the powerful thrust of his walking stick. Thinking of the shrewd old woman wheeling her way uphill, the effrontery of that much put-upon face, the indignities of age, of her handicap, of the flesh.) A week from now I’ll be looking across the same bay, from the other side. A certain sense of dark comedy is, I suspect, a necessary survival skill in the Congo.

The bus is barreling now from Kamembe. Adieu, Faustin, Lazare! There are only five, six of us onboard, and I suspect this is an unscheduled journey – that the driver of the Kampala-Kigali line, in cahoots with some associates, has tacked on a side route for his own benefit. Why else would Horizon – a shuttle service between the major East African urban centers – Kigali, Kampala, Juba, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam – why would Horizon extend its route to Cyangugu, of all places? We stop along the way – sacks of charcoal, of potatoes, are tossed under the bus. Small money changes hands. Yes, this is probably a profitable racket. We stop in small towns – a solitary passenger, an old man with a battered suitcase, boards, smiles, looks around, settles fussily into a seat. In Ntidenzi, schoolgirls are skipping rope outside a primary school. They stop, smile, stare. Some classmates join them, everyone laughing and waving vigorously as we leave little Ntidenzi behind.

We pass for miles with nothing but tea plantations on either side of the road. Then a forest of blue gum trees – tall, slender, silver-barked, rocking in the wind. These you’ll find now all across Africa – non-indigenous, as native as yours truly. The blue gums grow quickly – it takes just five years, a man once told me, for a tree to reach maturity. In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, with its forests taxed by a rapidly growing population, these blue gums are planted to counter the effects of deforestation. In just a few years, a barren hill will be covered with trees – these become charcoal, firewood. But the effects, I’m told, will be disastrous. A South African farmer once described how quickly these selfish trees drink the water from the soil. The earth here is being depleted. But what else do you tell the villagers, who only know that they need these trees for survival?

Now we are entering Nyungwe Forest, the national park – the road cuts through one of Rwanda’s last pristine places. The mountains are covered in dense forest, lit by patches of sunlight. The climate changes. The clouds are low, rain begins to fall. Through the thick jungle cover we go, the trees draped with liana and creepers, vines hanging from the branches. It is a picture-book jungle, Curious George – the kind you see in cartoons with swinging monkeys and apes. It’s rare to see such wild places in Rwanda, with its carefully cultivated landscapes, its terraced hills. Thousands of years ago, the whole country must have looked like this. Our ancestors beating their chests and howling violently in the treetops. We stop. Villagers gather on the roadside, waiting for a lift. Somewhere in all that forest, still you find some settlements. They board, small bills clutched in their hands. Some wait – for a free ride, maybe, a passing friend. Others sell oranges, rough-husked fruits. In places we slow: a landslide has blocked part of the road. Piles of rock, mud, branches, sediment. A lorry passes, huffing slowly uphill and dragging a second trailer behind it. Across the windshield are the words, “Jesus is Life.”

Now the trees begin to thin, here and there you see hilltops denuded and trees stripped bare. Suddenly, more of those alien blue gums, and you know you are close to human populations again. The forest vanishes. Villages, small vegetable plots, farmers in their fields. The sunlight is bright – the clouds seem to hang over Nyungwe. Then more towns, bigger, rows of shops, banks. We are approaching Butare, and now we pass tourist hotels, cars, new constructions on the side of the road. You are impressed, coming out of the forest, to see the freshness and vitality of these towns. So much development along the road from Butare to Kigali. A difference from the neglected backwaters on the rough lake roads.

The day is growing long, too long. We are four, five hours out of Cyangugu – the landscape is monotonous. I read, doze off. We stop – dozens of secondary school students board. Suddenly the bus is full. Laughter, flirtations, the smell of body odor. The girl beside me reads from a book of hymnals. I close my eyes, open them, begin to count the mile markers. We pass rice paddies – scores of gacaca convicts, in their pink shirts and shorts, bending, working. More rainfall. The scene of an accident. A bicyclist, a prone body, on the side of the road; a bunch of bananas. My seat is hard, and I can’t find a way to arrange myself comfortably. Someone in front of me leans her head out the window and vomits. I close my eyes. When I open them, we’re in Kigali.

The city continues to grow on me – a place so sleepy and scrubbed that a friend once dubbed it “the Morgantown, West Virginia, of Africa.” But after two weeks upcountry it seems livelier, fresh, more boisterous than I remember. The streets are crowded, buses and motos, bodies dodging traffic, the rush-hour swarm. We reach Nyabugogo – craters, puddles like vast inland seas. It seems remarkable that a government which can lay hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable across the country can’t build a decent fucking bus station. Women clutch at the hems of their dresses, step daintily. People waving, calling, an ecstasy of partings and reunions. The bus has finally stopped; outside, an angry crowd. They are going to Kampala – the bus, I suspect, is way behind schedule. We made terrible progress through the rain. Now they are thirsty for blood; we have to push our way through the crowds. I flag down a moto. On the back of the bike, weaving perilously through the traffic on my way to the Virunga Punctuel offices. The duffel bag is perched on my knee, my arm strains to keep it from pulling me off the bike.

The first bus is at half-past six; I have half an hour to kill. I am, in fairness, glad for the extra time. I stock up on samosas and congealed pizzas for the ride, make a bathroom run at the UTC. The place is packed – the crowds look so prosperous here. Cufflinks, sunglasses, high heels, earrings. Men who, if asked, would describe themselves simply as “businessmen.” So much noise and commotion, after the silence of the lake. As charmless as this place is, I realize how much I’m going to miss it: my thrice-weekly visits to Bourbon Coffee, my late-night runs to the 24-hour Nakumatt, the tall, slender university girls and preppily dressed boys strutting on their Friday-night promenades.

The feeling swells as our bus leaves Kigali, the lively streets, the constellations of lights strung across the hills. All day, since leaving Nyungwe, with the sun pouring its blessing on the hills and town after energetic town scrolling by, I’ve had an odd sense of faith in this country. In Kigali, too, with all the optimistic bustle, it struck me that maybe, for all my skepticism about reconciliation in Rwanda, this country really can pull through – that with enough jobs and development, enough growth trickling down to the collines, this country might actually get past the politics of genocide, divisionism, hate.

The optimism, this high feeling, catches in my throat. Along the road to Gisenyi, thinking about these past two weeks, I realize that I’ve never felt as strongly about Rwanda as I do right now. After all these months – stretching back to my first visit two years ago – Rwanda has finally grown on me.

Silently, I pour out my heart. The honeymoon is brief. An hour from the city, on a high backcountry road, the bus begins to rattle, a flat. This day – fittingly, April Fool’s – will never end. A lesser or more superstitious man might have gotten the cosmic hint and headed back to Kigali. We stand on the side of the road; the lights of the city cast a luminous dome over the hills. Together eight, ten of us stand in the mud, pushing against the side of the bus so the driver can remove the flat. The night is brisk. Men and women, villagers, appear, briefly passing through the headlights. An old man, short, friendly, greets me, shaking my hand. “Me hungery, me hungery,” he says, still smiling. I tell him I’m sorry, I have nothing; he laughs, shakes his head, wanders off. The road is pitched in darkness. I stand 20 feet behind the bus, staring at the stars, imagining myself all alone here, lost in the world. What a strange thing, this 21st-century soul. Bound to the earth. Wheeling around on our curious revolutions. Lassoed to an indifferent galaxy. Confronted on all sides by cosmic laughter. And believing ourselves somehow noble and brave and good.

Soon two bright headlights – an empty bus, sent to retrieve us and take us the rest of the way. We transfer our bags, settle into our seats. Everyone has arranged themselves in the same order from the first bus, and for some reason, this surprises and impresses me greatly. My window seat is vacant, waiting for my tired behind. I sit, bury my head in my hands, try to will the day to completion. There are too many twists in the road to nod off. Dark, silent towns pass in the night. We reach Ruhengeri – hotels, cheerful and welcoming; bars strung with Christmas lights. The moon comes out from behind the clouds. Mist fills the valleys. Mountains silhouetted against the light of the sky. This day has had some magic, too. The bus stops in villages left off the maps. People depart, walk stoically into the darkness. Men tug at their collars. Women kick off their heels, hoping to catch some sleep. Finally, Gisenyi.

It has taken close to twelve hours to get here from Cyangugu. Looked at differently: after nearly two weeks, I’m right back where I started. I slog down the road, surrounded by street kids – they are more aggressive, more demanding after dark. At my cheery little auberge, a group of young ex-pats, aid workers, most likely, looking blonde and convivial by the bar. A beer and a good lay – did Stanley have such simple hopes on his great African expeditions? But then the day’s final indignity: the rooms are all booked. As if Rwanda has prepared one last kick in the ass to send me into the Congo. I haul my bags back down the road, ignoring the catcalls of the street kids, thinking uncharitable thoughts about these goddamn orphans. A shifty youth greets me at the door of the grim Gisenyi City View Hotel, as disreputable a place as you’ll find in this lakeside resort town. We have to wake the manager, asleep in what will soon be my bed. He emerges from the room, sleepy, shirtless, smelling of booze. I am prepared to sleep in the garden if I have to. Then the lights go out.

I take out my flashlight, muttering, bickering, insulted that I’m paying close to fifteen U.S. bucks for this stuffy, wretched room. Briskly the sheets are changed, tidings for the night – good or otherwise – are exchanged. This long day is finally over. It’s approaching midnight as my head hits the pillow. It’s practically tomorrow already.

Me no money, me no go.

Editor’s note: This is the eleventh in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 11 – March 31

Another restless night. Not surprising. When I wake, heart racing, just after six this morning, I’m already juggling through unpleasant scenarios at the border. Bribes, detentions, angry interrogations. Demands for imaginary fees: a camera fee, a tourist fee, a fee for carrying an extra pair of sneakers. Dear Lord, don’t let the word “journalist” come up!

I’ve made my preparations, most of which involve stashing bundles of various currencies on different parts of my body, not sure how many bribes – and in which currencies and denominations – might be necessary to get me across the border. I’ve punched some phone numbers into my phone, too – friends who will, I hope, be able to get me out of a tight spot, should things not go according to my admittedly half-assed plan.

Wishful thinking: saying goodbye - sort of - to Rwanda

With a few cheery waves and brisk goodbyes, I leave Cyangugu just after nine. The Rwandan official – a tribute to her countrymen – stamps and scribbles me through, and then I’m crossing a rusted bridge over the Rusizi and trudging uphill. There is commotion on all sides: porters pushing loaded wheelbarrows up the hill, women carrying boxes and tough nylon sacks on their heads and backs. A police box – an empty shipping container – sits halfway up the hill, and a small health clinic further still. I reach the border post and stroll merrily toward the nearest window. No dice. Foreigners, of course, get the special treatment – far from prying eyes – and so I’m ushered through first one, then another doorway, into a small, congested room whose stifled air suggests the long, unpleasant hours ahead.

Two men, broad, bespectacled, cheerless, sit behind two cluttered desks, hunched like Talmudic scholars over their ledgers. The man in the far corner looks up, gives me a discouraging once-over, and says, simply, “Oui?” I have been preparing for this moment. I hand him my passport and $35 in crisp American bills, smiling nonchalantly, as if I do this sort of thing all the time. He gives my money a dirty look and asks, “Que’st-ce que c’est?” I suspect a long, delicate dance has just begun.

I explain that I’d like to buy an entry visa, and both men sit upright, push themselves back from their desks, as if to get a vantage point from which to better appraise me, and exchange a significant look. A long, heated, mostly one-sided debate ensues, in which my well-rehearsed pleas are brushed aside with an admittedly masterful display of bureaucratic stubbornness. Americans, they explain, must receive their visas from the Congolese Embassy in Washington, D.C. I protest that I’ve been out of the country for close to a year; then, they explain, with perfect reasonableness, I should have written to Kinshasa. I can only imagine what the creaking machinery of Congolese bureaucracy would do to such a letter. I say that I’ve twice visited Goma and bought my visa on arrival, but I can quickly tell this is a foolish gambit: I might as well explain how things work in China. They make disparaging remarks about their North Kivu counterparts, suggesting a less than brotherly bond between the Kivus; and besides, they say, a new law has come into effect – of course! – as of the first of this year. It is impossible for them to issue me a transit visa at the border – simply impossible! That would be against the law. Fortunately, finally, getting to the crux of the matter, there is a convenient loophole in this law, through which I can jump for just three hundred American bucks.

The finer points of this argument are, unfortunately, lost in a barrage of indignant French. Still, it is a brilliant performance. I can tell I am up against higher powers here: the complex mechanisms of the State, the mythical rule of law, the bureaucracy which the Congolese treat with the same gravity and respect the rest of us show colon cancer. I realize now that my hopes for a quick, painless border crossing were foolish ones; and I realize, too, that I’ll need whatever help I can get to make it into Congo.

I dial Etienne, a Rwandan tour operator I’d met in Kigali earlier this month. At the time he’d assured me that the Congolese visa was a breeze: $35 in American bills at the border, just as I’d done it in Goma. How simple everything seemed in Kigali! Etienne claimed to be well-connected with immigration officials on both sides of the border; he knew the rules, he said, as if these things in the Congo weren’t entirely negotiable. Over the phone I explain my case to him. He is attentive, sympathetic. His friend in Bukavu, he says, is unfortunately traveling to Kinshasa at the moment. I ask if he can try to talk some reason into these recalcitrant officials, and he offers to give it a shot. The man nearest me has returned to his paperwork, and when I call to him – once, twice, “Pardon? Pardon?” – his brilliance becomes evident. I wait for one, two, three beats as he dutifully records the latest entry in his ledger. Trappist monks could not go about their work with such religious devotion. Finally he raises his eyes, a master of his craft, almost feigning surprise that I’m still here. He takes the phone and, at great volume, explains the situation to Etienne. The situation, to borrow from the French, seems to be merde. Etienne, in my ear again, is unconvinced. He promises to make some calls to friends in Goma and urges me to sit tight. In the mean time, he says, I should leave these men to their devices. They won’t want a mzungu around, he says, during whatever complex negotiations might ensue.

Outside, sunlight, brilliance. I am put off, but not wholly discouraged, by the morning’s proceedings: really, I should’ve expected as much. I find a spot in the shade, sit on my duffel bag, watch the bustle of this busy crossing. Women are packing bags, stuffing sandals and clothes and cheap Chinese electronics into them, heaving them onto their backs. When they walk they’re almost doubled over, the muscles in their necks straining, their upper bodies parallel to the ground. I imagine they’ll make this same trip back and forth each day to sell their goods in the market. The day’s profits, a bundle of soiled, rumpled bills, will be buried somewhere in their bosoms. At home, there is a secret place they have for safekeeping.

There are the handicapped, too, weathered, shrewd, battered, defiant, straining their way uphill in rusted hand-pedaled tricycles. Because of some quirk in the customs law – a rare piece of beneficence, perhaps, in the cutthroat Congolese world – the handicapped are exempt from paying duties at the border. And so these crafty cripples, spurned by the world, often shunned by their own families, make a dozen trips a day, transporting jerry cans full of gasoline bought cheaply in Kamembe. For the tough uphill climb there is a young boy, barefoot, dressed in soiled rags, pushing from behind. Probably he will get 500 Congolese francs – about 60 cents – for the effort.

These young boys are everywhere, their feet cracked and blistered, in filthy shorts and oversized t-shirts, keeping the border economy going. They are porters carrying sacks of flour up the hill, or vendors selling whatever cheap nutritionless fare – plain white rolls, glucose biscuits, chewing gum, waffles – count as sustenance here. Most, I suspect, have never set foot in school – from an early age, they had to contribute to the family. And yet I suspect these young swift hustlers are learning more valuable lessons here than in some understaffed, underfunded Congolese school. (These Western pieties!) Near the border post a handsome adolescent – he is 15, or 16 – washes the Land Cruisers and 4Runners of Bukavu’s nouveau riche. He is fast, diligent; he charges 1,500 francs – almost $2 – per car. In his employ are two younger boys who carry jerry cans down the hill, filling them with lake water. On a slow day, this young entrepreneur probably takes home ten, fifteen bucks. This is an impressive amount even for a man his father’s age. He wears a smart, buttoned shirt and a pair of crisp denim shorts. He looks wise beyond his years.

A boy approaches me, smiling, his pants torn at the knees, a jerry can tied with a dirty rag over his shoulder. “Mzungu, how are you?” he says. His name is Abdullah. He orbits my small encampment, grinning, grateful for my proximate whiteness. “Me no money, me no go,” he says. I’ve been sitting outside for close to an hour. Join the club, I think.

Now my friend Justin arrives, looking sharp in a blue collared shirt and blue jeans and a bright white pair of New Balance sneakers. We greet each other joyfully – it’s been more than two months since we met in Bujumbura – and exchange the news. We’re interrupted by a call: Etienne has reached his friend, the chef of immigration in Goma, and wants me to send him my passport details. Suddenly the day has brightened. Things are moving forward, it seems, and it’s only 10am.

We stand and talk in the shade, the border circus whirling around us, Bukavu just fifty feet away. When I’d met Justin – briefly, at our hotel in Bujumbura – he had been visiting Burundi to apply for a passport at the Congolese Embassy. This had seemed illogical at the time. But then, I didn’t really know Congo.

“Everything is too much money here,” he explains, gesturing with his chin to the country on the other side of the border control. The cost of applying for a passport in Bukavu was too high – there were too many officials asking for too many bribes. It was easier and cheaper to travel to Bujumbura, where he had studied and lived for five years, than to deal with the bureaucratic hassles in Congo. He laughs, recognizing my similar plight. “Once you get in, it is no problem,” he says. “There is no control.”

Such is the situation for young Congolese in Bukavu, who find a better, easier life waiting as soon as they cross the border. Justin does his shopping in Kamembe; it was corruption at the university in Bukavu that drove him to Buja. “The teacher will call you and say, ‘I am marking your exam. What do you have to give me?’” he says. In Congo, he had no way of knowing what his talents were as a student. As with so much in Congo, it was just a question of how much he could pay.

Now he’s waiting for his passport in Bujumbura, so that he could begin the lengthy process of applying for an American visa. He is already 28 – old for a Congolese bachelor – and he knows how hard it will be to travel once he starts a family. The application process is difficult, though; it all depends on how much money he can show for himself. Already he has thought his expenses through: one hundred dollars a day for a hotel, fifty dollars a day for restaurants, money for transportation. Clearly, Justin is not a typical young Congolese of limited means. But not even these preparations will help his cause. “If I go to show them these calculations at the Embassy, it is not enough!” he says. “If I show them I have five thousand dollars, it is not enough!” And yet how easily he passed between these African borders.

Etienne, now, is on the phone again. No news from Goma. Patience, he counsels. I have nothing else to rely on. We stand and watch the border traffic pass us by. More women, husky, laboring – all day they flow back and forth between the two countries. Some wazungu, too. The UN and NGO staffers pass quickly – probably they are negotiating this border each day. An SUV idles outside the office, a white woman sitting in the back, suitcases piled behind her. Tourist? She doesn’t leave the car. Her driver, a tall, well-dressed man of solid build, carries her papers inside. Even this smooth customer, it seems, is rebuffed. Now he is on the phone. Now another man gets out of the car, confers. Soon they, too, are allowed to pass. Not even a look of pity as they go.

The officials, it seems, have come outside to stretch their legs, and they’re not too pleased to see us here. They have harsh words for Justin and shoo us further down the road. We find a bench, a thin plank of wood, in the shade of a pine tree. Our friend the carwasher is working diligently on an SUV. The owner, handsome, immaculately dressed, watches with intense curiosity. His shoes are spotless – he must have floated over all that mud. Justin greets a friend, a cousin. A student from the university approaches, smiling. Apparently I’d met him a few days before, in Kamembe. He gives me his email address, waves, trots off to catch up with his friends. I have no idea who he is.

We are talking about the Congo, me and Justin, and it is funny to hear him talk about Kinshasa, that far-away place. It is like hearing news from a foreign land. Justin has only heard stories from two brothers who had studied in the capital. It costs nearly $700 to fly to Kinshasa one-way from Bukavu – more than half the cost of a round-trip ticket to New York. To travel overland, of course, is impossible – it would take weeks, even if he could do it safely. But Justin follows the news. He is a keen critic of the president, Kabila the Younger. He says there is a saying in Kiswahili, “Sehemo yangu?” – “Where is my part?” – that explains the Kabila style of governance. Following in the footsteps of his father, and of Mobutu before him. “When I compare here to Bujumbura,” says Justin, “I regret too much.” He gestures to the tarmac road, which, he says, tapers off on the other side of town. The Chinese have been contracted to rebuild the roads in Bukavu – they’ve signed massive infrastructure deals in exchange for minerals all across Congo – but Justin says the quality of their work is poor. The government has no interest in developing the country. “We have money, but no conscience,” he says.

In Congo, it is like the age of the American robber barons. Worse – at least they gave us functioning railroads. The plunder of the Congo has been going on for so long, it has built so many lavish fortunes – in Congo, in Belgium, in France; no doubt in South Africa, America, China, too – that it’s impossible to see a way out. Justin sighs at his country’s wasted riches. “In our soil we have gold, we have diamonds, we have minerals,” he says. “But it is for nothing.” He says he has dreams of becoming president some day. He would like to turn the Congo into a functioning country, one that would work for its people – not against them.

Across the road, up a narrow dirt path, is a grand two-storey house. It belongs to Justin’s uncle, a local politico; on the ground floor he’s built a small restaurant, umbrellas and plastic tables facing Lake Kivu. Now, with storm clouds gathering over the Rwandan hills, Justin suggests we sit on the terrace: the umbrellas, at least, will keep us dry. We climb the muddy hill. At the top a busy youth, the houseboy, is washing laundry in a plastic basin. Justin goes to greet him, to search for his aunt. From the terrace I can see a long line of traffic, bodies and bodies, trudging across the border.

Moments before being forced back to Rwanda.

We sit under the candy-striped beach umbrellas and wait. My spirits are deflating. It’s been three hours now, and still no encouraging news from Etienne. He calls again. The Bukavu immigration chef, it seems, has switched off his phone. Etienne is sorry, sympathetic. “I know how it must be for you,” he says. I thank him with great feeling: already he’s done more than I could have expected. He promises to keep trying throughout the day. I assure him dinner’s on me when I make it back to Kigali.

Justin is standing beside me and we are watching the road. The early-morning traffic of market women and traders is being replaced by students – dozens of Rwandan youths who, like Faustin and Lazare, the two men I met in Cyangugu, cross the border each day to study in Bukavu. Now a man passes, legless, a muscular torso, with sandals tied to the stumps below his knees. He has a walking stick in one hand and a jerry can propped on his shoulder. Justin says he lost his legs to a bomb during the war – the big war, Mobutu’s war, when Rwandan troops stormed across the country to topple the old dinosaur. The fighting in Bukavu was bad. Each day gunfire, bombs, grenades. “That one,” says Justin, pointing to the legless man, “he decided he could not live asking, ‘Do you have money? Do you have money?’ He said, ‘I can still walk, so I can do something.’” The man carried a jerry can full of gasoline up the hill, hobbled back down, carried another. Day after day, this was his life. He might make a $5 profit on each one, says Justin. And there would be other deals, arrangements with people trying to get their goods through customs without paying a tax. “You see that one?” says Justin, pointing to a fretful woman standing in the road with a jerry can beside her. “She is trying to see how she can pass that border without paying a tax. Now she will ask that man to help her.” Sure enough, just seconds later, the woman is negotiating with the legless man. The conversation is brief – probably his asking price is too high. The man stumps off down the hill, taking brisk powerful strides, and the woman, trying her luck, picks up the jerry can and walks slowly toward the border.

The clouds blow in. They part. The road is drenched in sunlight. I’m starting to get hungry – I haven’t eaten all morning – and I know this won’t help my mood. I’m weighing our options when the choice is made for me: blustering down the road, gesticulating wildly, is one of the gruff immigration officials. I’m not sure how he spotted us – we must be 200 feet from the border control – but he is in no diplomatic mood. He wants us clear of the border, back in Rwanda – his whole manner is full of belligerence, threats. I take up my bags and we trundle off; things here can only end badly. Soon we are back at the Rwandan border, sitting on a bench, waiting. I am tired, my mood is sour. And then the rain starts to fall.

This is the low point of the day. If the war is far from over, this battle has been decisively won by the Congolese bureaucrats: I’m back where I started five hours ago. Outside the Rwandan border post, full of pathos and desperate entreaty, I ask a pretty Spanish girl – her manner confident, vigorous – how she plans on crossing the border. But she already got her visa in Spain – no hope that her handlers might be able to spirit me through. Finally, standing in the rain, I admit defeat. I ask the Rwandan official to cancel my exit visa – she is sympathetic, full of harsh words for her Congolese counterparts – and then me and Justin slouch our way to the Home St. François, where at least a hot meal is waiting.

Over potage and piles of rice and beans, I weigh my options. Etienne remains my best bet; Justin’s uncle – some ruling party functionary, no doubt – might prove to be a worthy plan B. There is apparently another border post – Rusizi deux – some 10 kilometers down the road, but I have my doubts. Justin assures me I’ll be able to pass without a hassle, but Justin has never been a white guy in the Congo. There’s a chance, too, that these stubborn bureaucrats will let me bribe my way through – Justin suggests approaching them as my intermediary with a hundred bucks – but this move seems full of potential peril. I might be angrily rebuffed. I might be shaken down for more money. I might spend the night in a Congolese prison, wrapped in the arms of a 300-pound convict whispering hoarsely into my ear, “C’etait bonne, non? C’etait très, très douce.”

The last, least desirable option – the one that even I, with my particular taste for black humor, find hard to swallow – would be to board a bus in the morning, backtrack hundreds of miles via Kigali to Gisenyi, and cross the border into Goma. This tragicomic journey would involve more strength than my tired bones could probably muster; and yet how different I’ll probably feel, come morning, if all the other doors have been slammed shut on me.

All these things circle in my head, synapses firing, as we finish our lunch. It is after two, and I can see that the window of opportunity for this day is closing. It seems pointless to keep Justin here – bless his heart, he’s already spent a full day fretting along beside me. We part with great laughter and warmth and gratitude – it’s been a memorable day – and then I’m again checking into room No. 6 at the Home St. François, exchanging dollars (another headache! most seem to be counterfeits I picked up in Gisenyi), and heading back to the Internet café across the road. There’s a sort of luxury in this: I am relieved, after this long day, to be back in familiar surroundings. Etienne calls again, promising to pursue things on his end throughout the evening. Justin says he will take things up with his uncle. Tomorrow is another day, full, I’m sure, of its own promises and failures.