Tag Archives: goma

You have to be courage to live here.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 25 – April 14

Since arriving in Goma nearly two weeks ago, the Sake road has been like an artery – not only of traffic, of which there was plenty, but of the clatter and commotion and commerce that is the lifeblood of this city. The UN trucks and chukudus, the SUVs flying the flags of the Western aid agencies, the motorbikes, the pall of dust, the beggars and cripples, the street kids, the college kids, the women with their loaves of bread and baskets of tomatoes, the men with their polished shoes and briefcases stepping cautiously around puddles the size of Lake Kivu: if you wanted to grapple with and understand life in Goma today, there seemed to be no better place to start than this ash-gray, dust-choked road that continues on to a town called Sake, which I’m only now, on my last day in the Congo, setting out to see.

The minibus is crowded. Our feet are squeezed beside buckets and plastic bags, green leafy shoots poking from the tops. There are mostly women onboard, they have suitcases in their laps and wedged beneath their seats. Beside them, picking at the exposed seat stuffing, curled into their sides, strapped to their backs, nursing at their bosoms, are at least a dozen children – a small schoolroom’s worth of boys and girls in dirty shorts and torn tulle dresses with bare, dusty feet. Beside me a well-dressed man, knees hunched up to his chest, tells me he works with MSF, he is on his way upcountry to see his father. Another man in a threadbare jacket boards, holding four suits on wire hangers. “Sir!” he says, beaming, seeing me in the rear. He is selling the suits for $30 each.

The matatu to Sake

We barrel through town, past the place where last year I met 700 IDPs living in a ragged tent city behind a church. The IDPs are gone now – like those who were staying in UN-sponsored camps around Goma, they’ve returned to their homes in Walikale and Masisi and beyond – but along the road we pass vestiges of their presence, the ghosts of wars past that have left so many Congolese living their poor, transitory lives. There are houses made from sticks and banana leaves and mud; the roofs and windows are covered with UNHCR tarps, the doors are made from USAID scrap metal. In the fields we pass unfinished stone walls, like the relics of medieval villages; we pass concrete foundations for homes that were never built, pillars and corner stones laid with hope and uncertainty.

It is beautiful country here. Just minutes from the city everything is lush, there are rows of vegetables in the fields, the hills are cultivated with small, neat plots of beans and manioc. In the distance, the scalloped folds of a green mountain range skirt the lake’s shores; the water is flat and silver as a saucepan. A pair of military helicopters fly overhead. We stop at checkpoints, and more checkpoints. Someone has words with the driver, soldiers circle the matatu, staring into the windows. In nearly three years of traveling in Africa, I have never felt so vulnerable and conspicuous. We are waved through; the gears make terrible grinding noises. Further down the road we are stopped again. A young girl sits beside me in a gold party dress, the zipper is broken, it slips off her small shoulders. She smiles and swings her bare feet. An infant is bundled to her mother’s back, its eyes wide and alert. A soldier gets in, clutching a small blue suitcase in his slender hand.

We reach Sake, where the conductor shakes me down for 200 or 300 francs more than the going rate. It is the equivalent of 30 cents, but I take this in stride: I have other things on my mind. The unease I felt aboard the matatu – the hard bearing eyes of the soldiers at the checkpoints – hasn’t let up here in town. There are no friendly cries of “Mzungu!” as I step into the road; instead a man, another passenger, takes me gently by the elbow and says, “Be careful, there are many thieves here.” Suddenly the phone, the camera in my pockets feel like big, conspicuous bricks. A few youths, hangabouts, part-time bike mechanics and carwashers, crowd close to me, for what seems like no good reason. Two women braiding hair on the side of the road look up at me to stare.

I have felt this sort of discomfort before – in the frontier towns of northern Kenya, Uganda – and always it has passed once I’ve had a few minutes to walk around, get my bearings. It doesn’t pass here. As I walk down the main road – a row of spare shops on one side, a listless market on the other – I can feel wary eyes following me. I’m hoping to find some friendly, eager face to latch onto – a local aid worker, a school teacher – but I get only a few reluctant smiles. There is a lump in my throat about the size of a fist. I walk to the end of the road – the town is ringed by green hills, it is breathtaking. Two years ago Laurent Nkunda’s troops fought the ragtag Congolese army on these same hilltops. I can imagine how the sounds of gunfire and grenade blasts reverberated across the valley – it must have been terrifying when night fell.

Two men are chatting under a tree, they are in their 30s or 40s, it is impossible to predict what time and care do to these Congolese faces. They call out in my direction and I approach them, smiling, ever eager, like a real village idiot. We exchange a few greetings, and quickly a crowd gathers. There are the usual questions – about where I am from, and what I am doing here – and I can hear my responses dopplering across the crowd. “New York” pings out to an old man at the crowd’s edges; then “America,” moving quickly from mouth to mouth. I don’t tell them I am a journalist; I say simply that I’m traveling, a voyageur, as if this meant anything. I’m not entirely sure, after all, that “journalist” is the most accurate job description – would “travel blogger” translate easily into French or Kiswahili? Why exactly am I in Sake, after all? So I could see it. Why? There is no satisfactory answer to this. Their questions have a hard edge to them; while I don’t feel especially threatened, I can’t say I’ve heard all that many karibus, either. There is a sense of expectation, for lack of a better way to put it: that if a white man pitches up in Sake one afternoon, it is because he has some motive for coming. Judging from some of the hard looks in the crowd, I can assume such motives aren’t always good.

I feel ill at ease when the invariable requests come: for some small money, just enough to buy milk, or bread. The crowd is in the dozens now – for all my travels in rural Africa, I’ve never seen such a crowd materialize around me so quickly – and there’s no way I can give any amount of money that would appease them all. I apologize, I say I have nothing. There are nods – some sympathetic, others less so, as if they’d expected no less treachery. A small boy comes up to me, offering to sell his slingshot. I feel stupid being here. I apologize again, at elaborate length, shaking as many hands as I can, working the crowd like a politician, doing my best to extricate myself from a situation that’s growing more and more uncomfortable by the second.

I walk back down the market street, my steps a little bit quicker now, it almost feels like I’m walking in someone else’s shoes. Approaching the taxi rank I meet a smartly dressed man carrying a thick brown envelope under his arm. He is a former primary school teacher, his name is Anselme, he has been out of work for months now, he says, sighing, laughing, what can you do. It is not like the life in America. “You have come to be fat,” he says. “You take meat, you take beans, you take potatoes, you take milk.” A fraying belt is cinched tightly across his waist – it is clear that Anselme does not take these things. The life in Sake is bitter, it is hard. “We go to school, but we have not the job,” says Anselme, kicking the dirt from his shoes.

His wife owns a small shop beside the taxi rank; she rises when we enter, smoothes her dress, smiles and offers me a Fanta. We sit for a few minutes on a pair of oversized armchairs, talking, looking out into the street. A young girl takes a few brave, wobbly steps from behind the counter – it is their daughter, she wears a pretty white dress, she is barely five. Anselme smiles and lifts her into my lap. We all laugh, make gurgling noises, try to quell the trembling of her lower lip. I think of these small, generous acts by Anselme and his wife and feel embarrassed: what about Sake has gotten me so spooked? Thanking them for their time, rushing to catch a matatu that’s about to leave for Goma, I feel ashamed, as if I’m running away from something. For the twenty minutes it takes us to reach town, I try to figure out what it is.

Back in town I feel dejected, I was hoping to have a rousing send-off today but instead feel like a part of me was wrong, wrong about Congo and everything. The sky is low, a light rain is falling. I walk to the end of the Sake road, turn, the rain is steady, the clouds are flat and gray, it looks like they’re stretched across the whole of Congo. The cars rush by, their windows are fogged, the drivers stare grimly ahead. Across the road I hear music, loud and tinny and discordant notes carrying through the air. I wonder if there is some political rally, some public-health crusade, but no, there are two churches side by side, one is clapboard, the other is built from corrugated tin, and they both have gospel music blasting from their cheap Chinese speakers. Inside the benches are mostly empty – it is a Wednesday afternoon – but still there are some women and children clapping, singing, shuffling from side to side. I stand there watching, listening, trying to understand this faith and devotion and rapture. One of the women joyously wags her hands. Another has a tin can full of beans that she shakes in time to the music.

Out front are a dozen buses and lorries, a few men in soiled overalls circle, carrying wrenches and spanners. There are others sitting beside a giant Caterpillar bulldozer, they are drivers and mechanics, but they say they have not had work for weeks. Maybe I can give them something for bananas? “Pole sana,” I say. I’m sorry. “Pole sana,” he says, and then, as I’m walking away, “Pole Congolaise.”


The confusion, the sudden sadness and bitterness I feel, doesn’t lift on the way back to Cirezi, and it doesn’t pass until I’ve found a cheery watering hole close to the hotel. It is exactly what my sagging spirits need: music, laughter, brochettes, and bottles of Primus about the size of my forearm. There are dozens of tables and chairs arranged around a gravel courtyard, and a white-tile dancefloor with a disco ball twirling over it. It is hardly six, but a number of parties seem to be deep into their Wednesday-night drinking sessions already. The lighting is dim; I can barely make out the faces around me. The waitresses with their crowded serving trays bustling through the dark like shadows. The music is mellow, Congolese: an easy guitar rhythm, a lilting male voice riding the chords with some lovesick ode. A single couple gets up and sways side to side on the dancefloor. She is a husky girl in a pink tank-top and pink skirt; he, slender, in blue jeans and a shiny red shirt, clutches her like a live preserver. In the background, the clack-clacking of pool balls. Twice the power goes out as I labor through my brochettes. There is genial laughter as the Christmas lights and disco ball again flicker to life over the dancefloor. This is the Congo, after all. There are graver things to worry about on a night when, for now at least, the world is at peace.

An hour later I am on the back of a motorbike, puttering down the Sake road to meet Patrick. He is waiting for me in front of a small, fluorescent-lit bottle shop; outside, on the road’s shoulder, a few plastic tables and chairs are occupied by a boozy crowd. Two groups of men are drinking, conversing in loud tones, their eyes glazed over. Now and then a waitress will come out to get pawed and sweet-talked. Patrick watches all this sullenly; the waitress, it seems, is a former sweetheart. I suggest moving the party to Sun City, but he balks. “At Sun City, there is many violence,” he says. “They like to take the bottles, to fight.” The merry commotions I’d heard night after night through the wall, it seems, were not altogether merry.

We sit on the roadside, drinking lukewarm beers, watching the occasional lorry come barreling down the road. Many truck drivers prefer to travel at night, says Patrick, to avoid the bribes they have to pay during the day. It was something I witnessed that afternoon, when the conductor aboard my matatu hopped out at a light and exchanged a brief greeting with a policewoman. As we drove away, I could see her through the rear window, unfolding the 100-franc notes he had pressed into her palm.

This was nothing – this was Congolese life. You put up with these daily hassles, you kept your head down and you worked and you hoped for the best. Things are looking up, says Patrick. It’s not like it was in 2008, when Nkunda and his troops had threatened the city. Then the general’s Rwandan sponsors turned on him; today he awaits a war-crimes trial that many in the Great Lakes prefer not to see. Who knows what names will be named? Even now, says Patrick, you had the Rwandans poking their noses around near Walikale, looking to exploit the region’s great mineral wealth. He remembers the chaos a decade ago, after the Rwandans had chased out Mobutu and decided, on their way back to Kigali, that the Kivus weren’t such a bad place after all. Suddenly a tiny, mineral-less country was exporting diamonds and gold. “They invent a war when they want to make money,” says Patrick, shaking his head. War and profits are two things these Kivu Congolese know something about.

But now they are getting on with their lives. Patrick is making a good life for himself here, he says. “If you are intelligent, you are able to make money here,” he says. It’s not like the problems in South Kivu, where he was born. “In Bukavu, there is too much tribalism,” he says. “Here, they will give you a job because you are intelligent, because you are able.” Patrick, intelligent and able, has managed to find a place for himself here. And even if things sour, he says, with a shrug, he has learned more than a few things about survival. With five dollars, he says, he can last for two weeks – 200 francs for the bus to work, $1 for a sack of beans that can last for days. This knowledge, this grim arithmetic of survival, is another part of Congolese life.

“You have to be courage to live here,” he says.

We finish our beers and exchange promises to keep in touch, hoping our paths might cross again. I tell him to look me up if he ever makes it to Johannesburg – from here, an impossible journey – and he says why not, laughing, clapping my shoulder.

“If you tell me they have beer, they have girls, I like to travel there,” he says. And then I climb on the back of a motorbike to take me home.

Coda – April 15

The rain now seems endless, the same rain falling on me yesterday afternoon is falling on me again, it is turning the streets to mud, it is raining on all of Congo. Lying in bed last night, I had thought of taking one last valedictory tour around town this morning, looking for some message or prophecy from this place I hardly know. But the sky is a low gray canvas, the clouds are grumbling, it is time to go, I think, packing my bags, resting my duffel on one knee on the back of a moto, time to go as I buy samosas at Kivu Market for the trip to Kigali, as I press my last few dollars into my moto driver’s soggy palm at the border, it is time, I think, time to go home.

The Virunga Punctuel is musty, the windows are fogged – the rain has soured everybody’s moods. It is like being packed into a funeral hearse. Slowly we bump over the terrible Gisenyi roads, lurch over the rocks until we find the smooth pavement. People begin to stretch their legs, talk quietly into their cell phones. Just a mile from the border, and already life has returned to the strange sort of normalcy of today’s Rwanda. I had thought this bus ride would bring with it a rush of feelings, an emotional coda to the past month’s travels. But there’s none of that: my mind is washed blank. I tug at my soggy shorts, try to peel myself from the damp pant legs of the man sitting next to me. I rest my chin on my backpack, stare at the floor, and begin counting the hours until Kigali.

You feel tempted, at the end of a journey, to take stock, to square your mental accounts and make sure the emotional ledger is balanced. But after so many words, it feels like there’s nothing left to say. My back is to the Congo, and I wonder, now, if I’ll ever find my way there again, if I’ll get to know the country beyond its twin Kivu border posts. In Goma they had said it was a two-day journey to Kisangani – the roads were good, they did not say it was dangerous, it was impossible or crazy: just that it was two days’ time. For a few minutes I think about this on the Virunga bus, think about what I would do if I had the money and the weeks to spend. Probably I could get into a minibus in Goma, or climb on top of some transport truck with the husky singing women and beanpole men who live their brave, thrifty lives in the interior. It was two days to Kisangani; and surely there was some other place just a day from there, and another, and on and on, until you reached Kinshasa or New York or the ends of the earth.

That will be a trip for another time – today, just the thought exhausts me. I watch the hills of Rwanda out the window, hear the words forming in my head. (I watch the hills of Rwanda…) I think of what last words there are to say, and I decide that it’s simply a matter of reaching the end, of putting down your pen when you’ve decided there’s nothing left.

And then it’s done.

Save the world.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 24 – April 13

The temptation, when I reach my room at the Cirezi, is to catch up on the sleep I missed aboard the ferry. But there’s an adrenaline buzz as I listen to the commotion of street traffic: I am wired and happy to be back. Besides, it seems like a waste to spend my penultimate day lying in bed. Outside the early-morning rush, the congestion along the Sake road, invigorates me. I buy a new notebook – I’ve been burning through pages – and take a moto to Nyira for my morning coffee.

The end of this trip is in sight now, I am stumbling toward conclusions, in the mood for stock-taking. It has been a prolific month for my writing – maybe my most productive ever. By the time this journal wraps up in two days’ time, I will have written, I think, more than 70,000 words – a small book’s worth, over the course of four manic weeks. It’s a bit extraordinary, really. So much, too, has been left out – by sheer necessity, by a need to give my hand and mind a rest. (And, in fairness, by the fact that most of what I’ve already written could use a good edit.) I’m tired today after the long night, but there’s a greater mental exhaustion, too, an emotional need to put this trip – and journal – to rest. Some days it has been too much effort to sit, remember, record; but I’ve tried to leave out as little as possible, to give my future self – when the time comes to give this account some coherence – all the raw material to work with. I’ve made the mistake in the past, I know, left too much to the uncertainty of memory. And there will be no time, besides, to catch up in the coming days and weeks. Kigali will be a blur – seven days, ten, with so much to do. And then, of course, Johannesburg.

The morning drags, I’m exhausted – already I am scaling back the day’s expectations, hoping to simply slog my way toward nightfall. Tomorrow I can make the trip to Sake, just 25 kilometers from the city, to see a Congo beyond (however slightly) the protected shells of Goma and Bukavu. Today is for Goma – the ash-gray streets, the palls of dust, the cloud-spewing peak of Nyiragongo. I have decided today to call on my friend, Malick Ngiama, a man I’d met when I visited Goma with Prudent in November. He was a short, kind, generous man, he had walked with us through the streets and taken us to the office – the one-roomed, dirt-floored, tin-roofed shack – of his organization, the Save the World and Handicapped Association. He had started it himself, because there were so many handicapped in Goma who had nothing, did nothing – they were shunned, they sat on the street outside the university, or Kivu Market, begging passersby. “There were these people, and no one was helping them, so I wanted to help them,” he said. It was a modest enterprise – he had no Western figurehead, no foreign funding – but each week the members would gather, there were more than 30, and Ngiama would teach them some job skills, would teach them English. His own English was cobbled together from stories he had read online, conversations with foreigners. “I manage and I use the computer to find new words, and immediately I teach them to my students,” he said. He painted, too: he showed us pictures of the volcano, landscapes, a self-portrait with neatly cropped hair and a thin scrawl of mustache above his lip.

His office is along the Sake road, down a small hill – I’m sure I’ll remember it when I spot it. I haven’t heard from Ngiama in months, and I want this visit to be a surprise – to walk through the door, smiling, to clasp him warmly by the shoulders, start furiously bumping heads. The day is sunny, hot – I can feel the sunblock streaking down my face. All the commerce and hustle and thrift of this sun-flushed boulevard: the clack of a chukudu racing, weighted with bags of USAID maize meal; the throaty laughter of a woman sitting behind piles of pineapples, little pyramids of tomatoes and lemons and oranges the color of limes; motos pressed against each other, carrying a man with a car axle, another with five plastic chairs stacked atop his head; a lorry loaded with bales of grass – coming from where? going to where? – and women, laughing, flashing their teeth, sitting high up top.

I walk past the brightly decorated storefronts – Maison Glory, Atelier la Grace, Mini Alimentation Gloire a Dieu – and past a furniture shop, newly built sofas and armchairs sitting on the side of a hill, casual buyers looking, stroking the fabric, like the pelt of some exotic beast. Outside a DVD shop, a flatbed truck floating a banner for the Tigo cellphone network has attracted a crowd, there are tall speakers playing loud music to a curious crowd. Little boys in torn shorts come racing by, pushing toy trucks made from wires, from milk cartons and bottle caps. People sitting outside shops, sitting in an old abandoned minibus – a perfect Congolese snapshot, the wheels have come off, it’s going nowhere.


After twenty minutes I know something is wrong. I have walked further along the Sake road than I’ve ever walked before, I should have passed Ngiama’s office already. I continue walking – past a new hotel, an abandoned petrol station, clothing shops, hair salons – and then I turn back to retrace my steps. By the time I reach Cirezi, I know it’s no use: Ngiama’s office is gone. I feel a terrible pang of sadness and longing in my chest – why hadn’t I emailed Ngiama before coming, why hadn’t I told him I was already in Goma? It is already late in the day, I don’t have his phone number – I know there is almost no chance that Ngiama, a poor man, will check his email in the next day. Usually it takes days, sometimes weeks, for him to respond. And I think of what became of his modest tin shack hung with paintings, his villages and volcanoes and bucolic rural scenes. Last month there was a story in the Globe and Mail about this city, and the mayor’s mad scheme to relieve congestion by broadening the roads. It was done in a typically brutal, heavy-handed, Congolese fashion: one afternoon, without warning, gangs of young thugs with sledgehammers and crowbars showed up along the Sake road, tearing down houses and shops. Panicked men and women ran distressed into the street, watching helplessly as their livelihoods were destroyed. The local government offered them no compensation. Is this what happened to Ngiama? Was the Save the World and Handicapped Association caught up in the demolitions?

This sadness weighs on me all afternoon – it only seems to add to my heaviness on a day that has begun to drag, to darken along the edges. I have been looking forward, these last few days, to stepping off the bus in Kigali; to hopping on the back of a moto and puttering up to Andrea’s house; to having a farewell round of pizzas and Peronis at Sol e Luna before boarding my flight to Joburg. But suddenly I feel less ready to leave Goma – who knows how long it will be before I am again walking along the Sake road, wiping the grit from my eyes, joking with some jobless youth about Kabila and Obama? (Last year, on this same road, I had chanced upon a political rally with Prudent – supporters of one of Mobutu’s sons, who was slated to run in some parliamentary election. They wore yellow t-shirts with the old Leopard’s face emblazoned on them, a lingala slogan that they translated as, “We will never forget you.” The irony was utterly lost on them: no, the Congo would not forget Mobutu anytime soon.) It is strange what you cling to as a traveler – these lunatic attachments to places that so often break your heart. Will I ever see Malick Ngiama again? I remember how he took my hand in both of his and shook it warmly as we parted; I remember his lopsided mustache, the slight limp as he hobbled across his city of ashes, hoping to save the handicapped, and the world.

Walking, lost in these thoughts, the day delivers a happy surprise: Patrick, the young guy I’d met some three weeks ago on the bus from Kigali to Gisenyi. It seems so providential to bump into him on the side of the road, especially with my spirits so low. We greet happily – much head-bumping commences. Things are going well for him here in Goma, work is going well; he is on his way just now to make some photocopies for the office, he has a manila envelope under his arm. There’s no time to share with him all the stories from these past three weeks, so we make plans to have a goodbye drink the next night, a few beers at his favorite watering hole. We both laugh loudly, stupidly – what are the odds! It is the sort of symmetry, the closing of the circle, that makes my writer’s heart swell.

Groggy now, having set a plan in motion for my last day in Goma, I’m beginning to wave a white flag on this endless day. Tomorrow I would like to be rested; so long as the DJ at Sun City cooperates, I can make it an early night, have a full, energetic day ahead of me – in Sake, and here in Goma. I treat myself to one last meal at Coco Jamboo – the finest burgers I’ve had on African soil – and fork over some of my last few American bucks. I’ve worked it out perfectly, almost to the last cent: I’ll have just enough to make it through my final day and back into Rwanda. There is a light, finally, at the end of the tunnel. It is almost like going home.

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.

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.

Hell in paradise; or, paradise in hell.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 18 – April 7

Today I am up early, full of purpose. By the afternoon I hope to be on a canôt rapide to Bukavu, so the morning has been set aside for practicalities: buying my ticket, emailing long-neglected editors, paying bills – all the workaday drudgery of life on the road. I catch a moto outside the hotel to take me to the port. We turn down a few rough dirt roads, crest a hill, and then – voilà – there is the lake, blue in the early morning light. The weather is bracing, the air is crisp: I forget too often, I think, how spoiled my life is.

Stupid, too. I’ve approached this day with exaggerated ease, relying on just a solitary immigration official’s assurances that the daily speedboat to Bukavu leaves at 2pm. The Marinette Express, it turns out, is an early boat – 7:30am. And as I motor along the port, skirting the muddy puddles, 7:30 seems to be the departure time of every last boat to Bukavu. It is already half-past eight: I’ve missed my ride. This strikes me as a consequence of almost cosmic stupidity on my part. Suddenly, there it is: another day in Goma lies before me. I buy a ticket for tomorrow’s passage aboard the venerable Miss Rafiki – first class, $25: half the price and twice the journey of the canôts rapides – grumbling and wondering all the while why I didn’t think to sort this out yesterday.

My self-reproach, though, is of a gentle species – it’s hard to stay mad at yourself on such a bright, crisp, sun-scrubbed morning. The port is alive with color and commotion: motos scooting through the mud, officials hurrying about, porters hauling 25kg. bags of cement and flour. Women in bright tropical dresses sit under umbrellas, chattering, selling bananas, bread. An old World War I-era gunboat sits aloft on metal drums – testament, perhaps, to colonial foolishness. Beside it fishermen crouch, talking, laughing, pulling apart their nets.

With a long, pointless day before me, I’ve decided to encamp at the nearest Internet café and try to drum up some work. It’s been nearly three weeks since I left Kigali, and the accounting of the trip so far – almost $1,000 going out of my bank account, exactly nothing going into it – is a particularly dark cloud looming over the horizon. Goma has been extravagantly, catastrophically expensive, and the $150 visa for Bukavu was more than I should’ve reasonably spent. I’ll be lucky to stretch out my money for another week, and beyond that, there’s no sign of how I’ll survive the last couple of weeks in Kigali before boarding my flight to Johannesburg.

It is on these days of grave financial reckoning that I’m at my worst – a bitter, frustrated, self-doubting miser for whom every small expense feels like Shylock’s pound of flesh. I re-budget my budget, fret over how to cut costs (is “lunch” really necessary?), give disparaging looks to the club-footed men asking me for change on the street. As if I had the money to spare! Moi! At times I consider it a small miracle that I’ve made it this far – that for most of the past five years, from my giddy days writing for the start-up, TravelGator.com, to the gaudy cash cow of Forbes Traveler.com, to my newfound role as “Africa correspondent” for Variety, I’ve been living out of backpacks and duffel bags, scuttling around the world, somehow making it work. I’ve suffered from panic attacks, and woken up in suffocating sweats, feeling the heavy weight of anxiety on my chest. Four days now into my 33rd year, and I feel less stable than I did a decade ago. Often I think of my happiness in the Platonic sense: as an unsatisfied longing, always awaiting fulfillment.

The Internet is down for most of the afternoon: it is a wasted day. At dusk, I find myself again at the first roundabout in town. The place lifts my spirits. The swallows circling, the Congolese with their slow homeward strolls. Boys in a mango tree, hanging upside-down; girls tumbling in the grass. The joy these things bring me is almost inexplicable. I feel deeply attached to this region: the long safaris into northern Kenya, the cries of the fish market in Zanzibar, the rainy-season clouds blowing across the hills of Kigali. And now, too, a part of me is being left behind in Congo. Often I try to convince myself that southern Africa will be a different sort of sameness, another chapter in the same book. I don’t know what to expect. At times I’m gripped by an undoubtedly overblown fear of Johannesburg, where my plane will touch down in less than three weeks. I’ve read of criminal syndicates who orchestrate carjackings of taxis leaving OR Tambo International Airport. I’ve read grisly stories of armed break-ins, violent assaults of an almost ingeniously sadistic character. I stand here in the Congo and think about the dangers of everywhere else.

A girl sits beside me; she is 13, her name is Alice. I’ve seen her around Kivu Market, pretty, big-eyed, smiling, calling out, “Bananes! Bananes!” in a nasally sing-song. All week I’ve teased her – “Hakuna ndizi”: “No bananas” – and now she has found me, she is pushing her bananas and peanuts on me, asking if I have a wife. A saucy little thing, this Alice. I ask if she has a family. “No mother, no father,” she says, drawing a finger across her throat. She lives with an uncle, she works, she has no money for school. She asks me for ten dollars; I buy some peanuts instead. She says she sells 10,000 francs’ worth of bananas and 4,000 francs’ worth of peanuts every day. I think I’m misunderstanding her – it’s almost $17, an astonishing amount – but there you have it, there’s Alice. She follows me for a minute, twirling, laughing, a terrible little flirt, and then she sings out, “Bye-bye,” and skips back to her friends.

At sunset I’m at the Ihusi. Joseph is sitting by the lake, looking ruminative. “You’re looking ruminative,” I say. He has been sitting with a Mützig, scribbling in a pocket-sized Moleskine. “I’m figuring out how to fix the aid industry,” he says, ironically, but with earnestness, too. It has preoccupied him much in Goma: so much of what’s wrong with the industry, he says – the wastefulness, the bureaucracy – is going wrong here. I give him an appraising look. The thin scrawl of mustache, the clever eyes, the blond mussed hair, the casually aristocratic bearing: once he might have jauntily led a horse brigade in the Crimean War, or debarked in Bulawayo with dozens and porters of native guides for a pith-helmeted expedition into the African interior. (In a modern-day sense, I’m not entirely off the mark: later I’ll learn that his father was once an ambassador to the Congo.) He wants to fix the aid industry, he says, but also he wants to fix Congo, and his life in Kinshasa, and the great tangled mess of life in general. He has a young, restless spirit; I can see in him – as in myself, as in most of the expats I’ve met in Goma – a discomfort at the ease of life here. Kinshasa is messy, it is a challenge – his life there is messy, a challenge. There is pride in how he tells stories of the sporadic electricity, the apartment flooding, the crowded minibuses, the no-good police. He has chosen a more difficult life – a more African life – as I have, too, in my own way. This is a life that has its own rewards. But how easy, how tempting to have a villa by the lake, a coterie of servants, a car and driver, a salary – long nights at Coco’s, Le Chalet, Petit Bruxelles.

We’re meeting a group for dinner at Doga. Joseph, from CRS – not American, after all; he is from Hong Kong, or Canada, or both – and others: Oxfam, Save the Children, it is easier to remember organizations than names. There’s an American from Dakar, a former journalist – Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor – who traded his freelance life for a salaried job with CRS. He is a communications manager, he visits CRS sites across the continent and writes articles about the life, the progress, the challenges. It sounds like a plum job, a writer’s kind of work. Plus, the salary. “Some day you’ll cross over to the dark side,” he says, laughing. For years he has traveled across the continent, across Asia – he covered war in Afghanistan, all the African hotspots. A Swiss-German at the table says he looks familiar. Sierra Leone in 2002? Angola in 2006? It is a game you hear often played in Goma.

The table is crowded with pizzas and beers; two guys, former Peace Corps, are comparing the eating in Goma to Chad, Cameroon. Everyone agrees there’s no place like Goma. You can get imported olive oil, top-shelf liquor, goat cheese. (In Walikale, says someone, he tested out goat cheese on the locals – they were repulsed.) And of course, too, there is the lake, the climate. Someone says Goma was described as “Hell in Paradise.” Or was it “Paradise in Hell”? It was impossible to imagine the wars of the interior on a mild, sunlit day in Goma – the clouds gently brushing against endless green hills.

The party breaks up. It is me and Joseph now, watching Man. United and Bayern Munich on the big screen. It is impossible to remember what it’s like to walk into a bar, pick up a normal girl. The prostitutes in Doga have elaborate hair, complicated outfits involving lycra and netting. The older men, flush with NGO salaries, get most of their attentions. The game is a thriller. Bayern scores late, goes through on away goals. A pretty girl, tall, slender, totters by on stilettos and wraps her arms around a burly white guy. Outside, motos are waiting. Joseph is off to Kinshasa in the morning, me to Bukavu. We promise to stay in touch. On the way home my moto runs out of gas; the driver stops, gets off, tilts his bike 45 degrees until we hear the gasoline sloshing around in the tank. We stop to top off on the Sake road – a boy in a Man. United wool cap and soiled overalls jogs over, selling petrol from jerry cans. Soldiers pass in pickup trucks, huddled against the cold. Youths, well-dressed, chatting into their cell phones, walking in the dark.

At Cirezi the music from Sun City is again rattling the walls. I have slept here for six nights, and there has been a party for six nights. I sleep poorly – both because of the music, and because of the pre-trip jitters: I know I have to be up early in the morning. I wake up at 2, at 2:15, at 2:45; again at 5; and finally, pulling myself out of bed, at a few minutes to six. Outside, music, drunken voices, laughter. The day’s first light starts to fill the room.

Bring us the Chinese.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 17 – April 6

Just two-plus weeks after leaving my Kigali digs, I’m starting to lose confidence in what I’m doing. Writing – the actual, laborious task of putting pen to pad, of trying to keep up with the day’s events, both significant and in-, to somehow process them into a form that is engaging and informative or just not a pile of steaming, faux-literary crap – seems to take up most of my time. I feel as bound to my notebook here in Goma as I felt to my laptop back in Kigali – gone the free-spiritedness of those early days on the road. It’s beginning to wear me out. It feels like half the day is spent caffeinating, and the other half logging impressions of the view over the rim of my coffee mug.

Today I spend two, three hours with my notebook, catching up on yesterday’s thoughts. I’m not convinced there’s much value in any of this. Still, out of a sense of duty, of blind faith, I write. The morning passes. At noon I’m again at the immigration office, braced for the worst. Without reason. I’m in and out in under two minutes. Stamped into my passport is a one-month visa de voyage – they even give me a receipt. The afternoon, its hazy, heavy heat, is suddenly before me. Tomorrow I will go to Bukavu; today, Goma. Some sense of purpose comes over me. For one day, at least, I will steer clear of Doga and Ihuzi, I will resist the lure of happy hour and the merry chatter of pretty, acronymed aid workers. Instead I will wander these dusty, sun-scoured, grit-choked streets, subjecting the locals to my ad hoc French, making friends, shaking off hustlers, dodging motorbikes, stepping into the stream of Congolese life.

Down the broad avenues, past the heroic roundabouts – no doubt the Belgians brought a grand vision to their colonial cities. At one rond point a statue is being built; it is still unfinished, hidden, wrapped in plastic sheeting. Rachel has been spreading a rumor that it will be an homage to the ubiquitous chukudu; this is a pleasing vision. Better that heroic wooden scooter than one of the many statesmen who have betrayed this country through the years. Between the buzzing motos they clatter past: one after another, carrying a cabinet, a small boy, wooden shelves, a generator; bushels of something green and leafy; 25kg bags of maize meal and cement. On the side of the road, slim youths in blue jeans crouch beside gas-powered pumps, filling the tires of passing motorists. Others sell half-liter bottles of gasoline – the color and viscosity are all wrong; probably the bottles have been topped off in Lake Kivu.

The roads are battered, buckled – yet still, they are the region’s best. (At Doga, an aid worker recalled a trip to the interior. “Maman, look at the road,” they called out to her passing car. “Bring us the Chinese!”) Music comes from the hair salons, the CD shops, the electronics stores. Maison Bush. “Dealers in japans used music and household equipments.” Outside, the speakers are taller than a child, stacked like the foundation stones of a pre-Columbian temple. The bass shakes the ground. “Hurry while stocks last!”

Down the street I find a two-storey house of stained white clapboard, the words “Restaurant Benedict” painted across the side in big blue letters. From inside comes the sound of laughter, boisterous voices. A curtain is the door. There is surprise at the white man suddenly standing there, asking for chakula. A boy bent over a basin, washing his hands in soapy water, says something in Swahili. Another boy giggles in the corner. A waitress – light-skinned, wide-hipped, a kanga covering her curves – gives me a frank and explicit look. I gesture toward the stairs and she raises her eyebrows, an east African look that seems to offer affirmation with the least possible effort. Upstairs there are white tables, white chairs, white benches, white walls. I am beginning to sense a theme. The ceiling is made from a patchwork of canvas sacks; in some places it sags, in others, you can see the sky through it. A blue heart is painted over the door to the toilet. The tables are full. Everyone is watching me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.

Suddenly, there is movement by the window. A young man in a soccer jersey moves his motorcycle helmet and offers me a seat. A general mood of welcome fills the room. The waitress comes and gives me a blank look. I’ve always wondered if it takes some particular effort, a Zen-like relaxation of the forehead and cheek muscles, to have a face so washed of emotion. I order foufou and beans and lenga-lenga – a poor-man’s meal. The boy beside me asks if I take meat. “Je ne mange pas viande aujourd’hui,” I say. No meat for me today. What I mean to suggest is that I won’t be taking meat in this particular restaurant, because if past experience is any indication, I expect it to have the taste and consistency of an 18” Pirelli. There is no way to translate this satisfactorily. My companion is puzzled. How can anyone with the money to take meat – and surely I have the money – take just foufou and beans and greens? I don’t want to offend him with my meat snobbery – certainly the men eating viande in the Restaurant Benedict are receiving it the way a Catholic receives communion. I shrug again. “Je ne le mange pas,” I say. He laughs softly and shakes his head. Another white with his inscrutable ways! The boy across from me wipes the plate with his foufou, the sauce dripping from his long fingers.

Next to me, the boy who offered me a seat, is Emmanuel. He drives a moto, he says, he is 24. The room is filled with a dozen Emmanuels – young, thin, all elbows and rib cages in secondhand clothes. Most are moto drivers, says Emmanuel. (One gets up and gingerly carries a plastic bottle full of petrol down the stairs.) Emmanuel lives just outside Goma with his parents – he is one of eleven children, he hasn’t married, he finished his studies after secondary school. He’s been working since he was 20, renting a bike, saving the profits. He points to it outside, a red GTZ motorbike surrounded by red and black and blue GTZ motorbikes. I ask how is life in Goma. “Ça va un peu,” he says. There is nothing to do at night, he complains. He’s not married, so what is there to do?

The waitress returns with a plate of foufou and a plate of beans and a shallow bowl full of meat and sauce. There was no lenga-lenga, she says – viande it is. Again, all eyes on me. “C’est le premier fois,” I say, rolling a ball of foufou between my fingers. It is a green mound of manioc, with the texture of yesterday’s mashed potatoes. I soak up some sauce, pinch a few beans between my fingers. The foufou is good – surprisingly good. “C’est bon,” I say happily, truthfully. Relief, laughter all around. Here is a mzungu eating foufou with his hands, approving. Hungrily I take another clump, dip into the sauce, lick my fingers. Later in the week they will still talk about this memorable afternoon, looking up expectantly when they hear footsteps on the stairs.

There is a shuffling of chairs, a new lunch shift, new faces. When a newcomer reaches the top step he pauses, does a doubletake in my direction. After he orders he’ll watch me from the corner of his eye, measuring my reactions.

The food now is slow-going – the foufou is heavy, dense, monotonous. At the tables around me, an eager clutter of dishes, bottles of Fanta and Primus, pitchers of water poured into little metal cups. It is for most, I suspect, the only good meal of the day. When the bill comes it is 1,300 francs, less than $2 – almost half of this for a Fanta citron. For four days I have searched fruitlessly, stupidly for cheap eats; but really, I wasn’t looking too hard. Walking around today I saw others – Mamling, Best Life – and I’m sure there are many more, hidden behind curtains, full of moto drivers and students and the rest of Goma’s working poor.

Outside Christophe, one of the moto drivers from lunch, offers to take me to the hotel. His English is good – he has friends, Congolese, that he visits in Kampala. The bike, he says, is rented for $7 a day – anything else he keeps, a modest profit after even a good day’s work. He wants me to take his number – I can give him a call, he says, if I ever need a lift. Before he drives off I snap a picture of him in front of the hotel – his blue shirt glittering, Tim Horton’s cap in his lap. He is punching his number into my phone.

In the afternoon I am on my way to the Virunga market, on the black jagged road that stretches from the center of town to the foot of Nyiragongo. Ask the Congolese why they would live in the path of one of the most active volcanoes on the planet, and they will undoubtedly tell you that the soil here is rich, impossibly fertile. Sure, it is dangerous here – but where isn’t it dangerous? And besides, the lava flow is slow; in 2002, hardly anyone was killed. The city rebuilt; now, they are still building. Along the Nyiragongo road, new construction sites: wooden scaffolds, cinderblocks, sheet metal, rebar. These will become small shopping centers, offices, hotels. Goma is stable, money is pouring in. The city is expanding to meet its growing needs.

Offices of Chinese telecom CCT

At the market, the usual market scenes – the colorful bustle and din of African commerce. Past the pots and pans and crockery, I am all business – on a mission, actually, to buy some socks. Rows of blouses and blue jeans, colorful bolts of cloth, jackets, soccer jerseys. The stalls are built high off the ground; the women sit with their legs dangling, or reclining barefoot on piles of clothes, taking the term “business casual” to new heights. Everywhere they follow me with their eyes, solicitous. “Mzungu, mzungu,” they say. It is like walking through a red light district. I buy my socks, tease the ladies with promises to return for jeans, shirts, a wife. Howls of laughter. Yes, yes, a wife – that’s more like it. Now I am in the fish market, passing buckets full of silver sambaza, dried fish stretched out like animal skins. Three women sit on a bench, chickens squawking between their legs. Rows of soaps, skin creams, hair care products, extensions. Women at sewing machines – the drone fills the air like the sound of cicadas.

Outside, the rain is approaching. I get on the back of a moto and race the clouds back into town. Three lorries pass us on the road – they are full of mourners. Dark suits, neckties, elaborate dresses. A man holds a wooden cross aloft, lurching with each bump in the road. Slowly they make their mournful procession along the Sake road. In the rear truck, women are singing a funeral hymn.

We just beat the rain to Nyira. Then the sky opens up. I sit with my notebook, my pen, my collected stories of Saul Bellow. It’s been a good day. I am thinking ahead now to tomorrow, to the port, to the boat to Bukavu. The rain is torrential, Biblical – there is no use planning now, there is nothing to do but sit and listen to the thunder rolling over the gardens. There is a luxuriousness to waiting out these tropical rains, hearing the roar on the rooftops. The temperature drops, the air is brisk. By the time the rain stops we have entered a new season. I put on my jacket, zip it all the way up, puff into my fists.

It is after five, and the humanitarians are returning from the field. Watching the rush hour traffic is like going on a particular, Congolese safari. Here is a Land Cruiser, there a Range Rover. Here are the RAV4s and 4Runners, the Prados and Pajeros. Minibuses wheeling through the dusky half-light, traveling with speed and peril. From where I’m standing you can watch all of Goma passing by: motos, chukudus, women carrying fruit, carrying children. Swallows are circling in the sky, crying out. Below them children are running through the mud and grass of a small public park, singing, toppling, laughing.

A boy approaches, solemn and apologetic, asking for my help. He is young, handsome, studious; he has a sheet of paper, folded into quarters, which he unfolds for my inspection. There is a sentence written across the top of the page – “James is a best teacher of English” – which this boy, Bernard, has to write in the future tense. It is an assignment for an English course he is taking, a class for youths in the crowded quartiers of Goma who can’t afford to study in the city’s schools. James is a best teacher of English. I help Bernard with the first example; he tries the next one on his own. “He is going to pay your money this evening,” says Bernard, struggling to find the past tense. Deep lines crease his forehead. “He paid your money this evening,” he says. He smiles, he is starting to get it. “Here in DRC, many boys do not speak English,” he says. “We do our best.”

The Sake road is crowded on my way back to Cirezi – the aid-group convoys, the MONUC vehicles crammed with well-armed, Kevlared, flinty-eyed soldiers. Motos weaving through the traffic – I see only headlights, and more headlights. They grow as big as dinner plates in front of me and then, suddenly, swerve to the side. There is peril and exhilaration in all of this. A traffic cop, a heroic figure, stands in the middle of the road, blowing on his whistle. Music and horns and the sound of ancient engines. Near the hotel, lingala at high decibels pours from the Champs Elysee, R&B from the shop next door. The walls are lined with DVDs: CSI and 24 and Lost on one shelf, Cavemen Bible Mysteries and God’s Love in World Movie Collection 3 on the next. Men and women outside are hustling home, slopping through the mud, their faces ringed by headlights and exhaust fumes. White faces in passing cars. Clothing boutiques, fluorescent-lit hair salons, gospel music, the racket of generators. Boys selling bread, women with piles of pineapples. You can do your grocery shopping here on the street, groping in the darkness.

At an Internet café down the road someone has left a personals site, Badoo, on the screen: one man’s longing, transmitted across hundreds of miles of jungle, war, and impenetrable bush, calling out to Maranatha, 18, Lorita, 24, Gloria, 20, and SEXYANA, 22 – pretty, pouting girls looking for love in Kinshasa. It is impossible, at times, to think of Goma as a city in a country called Congo. Yet here, as if bonded by the desires of strangers, the country becomes whole: a great, fragile nation, bound together in cyberspace.

You know, like Vegas.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 16 – April 5

Today – a day of border crossing and visa wrangling, of abundant headaches and angry French inquisitions – is a day I probably could have avoided. With a bit of foresight – hardly 20/20 for your myopic narrator – I could have bought a one-month Congolese visa before leaving Bujumbura in February. Gone the tragicomic troubles of the past week: I would’ve been in Bukavu days ago. Instead, a parade of hassles: a bank run in Gisenyi; another $35 wasted at the border; a few hours of interrogation, I suspect, to get my one-month visa.

(A word on the incongruities of the preceding paragraph: for one, despite the smooth-flowing Western bureaucracy of the aid-industry apparatus, there are no functioning banks in Goma. I have to visit Rwanda to use the nearest ATM. Also, since one-month visas can’t be issued at the border, I’ll have to pay $35 to buy a transit visa, simply to allow me the privilege of entering the Congo, visiting the immigration office, and applying for a one-month visa. Stanley I am not, but these small privations of traveling in the Congo tend to add up as the days wear on.)

It is almost eleven by the time I reach the border. I’m a familiar face by now – they know I am looking to go to Bukavu, I’ll have no trouble returning from Gisenyi later in the day. In Rwanda, once again – the smooth tarmac of the lake road is a blessing. The dust and grit of Goma, the countless moto trips over the Sake road, have made my eyes raw. It would do me good to come here every few days, just to give my eyes a break. The lake is glassy, there are morning bathers, young men, lathering themselves in the water. Such calm after the chaos of Goma. I can appreciate why so many expats, with their resident’s visas, will come here on the weekend, just to lie on the beach and have a cocktail at the Serena. Crossing the border here is like crossing between worlds. And yet this place, too, has known such violence.

Near the market, the usual bedlam. I’ve been offline for a few days and want to check my email. The Internet café is crowded: four girls to a computer, young boys playing FIFA on a Play Station hooked up to a big-screen TV. The connection today is abysmal. Not for the first time do I regard this country’s ambitious ICT plans with a degree of skepticism. After 30 minutes I haven’t managed to send a single email. The young footballers are cheering, banging on their control pads, shouting “Ronaldo” and “Rooney” like religious incantations. Outside the day is growing hot. I shake my pockets for change, pay, stand in the doorway, squinting into the hard mid-day light.

The view from the Internet cafe

On my way to the bank a boy, Francois, joins me. He is selling posters: he holds up a dozen, Michael Jackson, Akon, maps of Africa and the world, that he’s hawking for a dollar each. Probably he will walk up and down this street, he will circle the market all day, and maybe he will sell one poster of Rihanna and one of Man. U. Soon another man, older, I don’t catch his name, joins us. He has studied literature at the National University in Butare, but since coming to Gisenyi, he’s had few chances to speak English. He is eager for this opportunity; Francois, sullen, slowly gets pushed aside. The man is a professor at the college in Gisenyi – he teaches English, business, a real renaissance man. He asks where I am from. “America,” he says. The word is like a passport and airline ticket, transporting our conversation to a different, faraway place. “That place is white, rich,” he says approvingly. Francois is still lingering; he wants to practice his English, too. “What is your academic state?” he asks. I’m not entirely sure what he’s asking. But then, I get the sense he won’t entirely understand my answer, either. I tell him I’ve finished my studies many years ago, but the other man gives Francois a hard look, clucks his tongue. He is afraid that it’s too personal a question to ask a stranger. He tells me the famous story of when President Kagame was speaking at the university, and a student in the audience asked what level of studies he had completed. “People were astonished,” says the man. “They thought he was prying into his personal life.” “Rwandans are like that,” I say, meaning both private, and weird. We part on good terms. At the bank, another half-hour of my life is wasted. Then I’m back to my usual seat in the usual garden at the Auberge de Gisenyi, gorging on the lunch buffet before returning to Goma.

This is, of course, no ordinary week in Rwanda. Tomorrow, April 6, the anniversary of the plane crash that killed former President Habyarimana: tomorrow is the start of the annual genocide commemoration week. It is a grim time to be in Rwanda. Already, over the weekend, I had met two groups of Rwandans who had gone to Goma to escape the commemorations. (In Bujumbura, too, I’d been told this would be a busy week, Saga Plage crowded with Rwandans fleeing Kigali.) I’d already had my commemoration week, of course, in 2008 – a strange time, a sense of voyeurism that didn’t sit comfortably. The ceremonies, the solemn reburials, the brutal TV documentaries, the speeches. At the Gisozi Memorial, I watched survivors crumpling, breaking into hysterical cries. A woman scratched and clawed at the air, believing the attackers had come back for her. One night there was a grenade attack at the memorial – a guard was killed. The reconciliation process, I learned – New Times platitudes aside – wasn’t entirely what it seemed.

Scenes from commemoration week, 2008

My own view of Rwanda has shifted in the years since. In 2008, my first visit, I went to the memorials, read Philip Gourevitch, lowered my head, observed the pieties. To visit Rwanda, I thought, was to step into a cathedral. I remember a visit to Sainte Famille, the Kigali church that achieved such notoriety during the genocide. It was there that Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, clad in a military-issue flak jacket, preached the gospel with a crucifix in one hand and a pistol in the other. While thousands of refugees huddled inside his church, Munyeshyaka drew up lists of Tutsis and Hutu collaborators to hand over to the militias. They were given free rein to enter the church and pick out their victims. Munyeshyaka himself was accused of raping some of the refugees, or offering sanctuary in exchange for sexual favors.

When I visited the church it was early in the afternoon, and the pews were almost empty. A few women in loose, colorful dresses shuffled across the polished floor, touching their fingertips to their heads. On another day in Rwanda, those pews might have been filled by pious bodies dipping their heads in prayer. A man sat at the end of an empty row, leaning heavily on his knees. There were scars on the back of his head – a spider web of wounds healed over – and he sat there, his face resting in the palm of his hand, his fingers clicking the beads of a rosary. Crude oil paintings hung from the walls: a pink Roman arm lifting the whip; a stiff-figured Christ hunched beneath each blow. I wondered if there was a good Christian moral in that story of suffering, or if it might just be a bloody parable of human cruelty, and the harm that one man can do another.

In the two years since, though, much has changed – not only in Rwanda, but in how I understand it. I’ve grown skeptical of the government, wondered about the effect of all this death-worship, this genocide cult. My readings now are from Gerard Prunier, Howard French. I’ve thought more about RPF crimes committed after the genocide, grown critical of the government’s muzzling of the opposition, the press. [Ed. note: For some brilliant reading on the UN’s recently released report on Rwandan - and other - atrocities in the Congo, click here.]

At the auberge, they’re playing a live press conference with His Excellency PK on the radio. An American journalist asks about the commemoration week broadcasts on RTV, the graphic genocide footage played on a 24-hour loop. Many Rwandans had told him they were appalled by such violence – they said they would unplug their TVs for the week. Did such programs go too far in opening old wounds? he asks. Perhaps implicit is a broader criticism: how much commemoration is too much?

President PK fudges, is ambivalent. Maybe the footage is too much, maybe it isn’t. He is no psychologist, no specialist, he says. Maybe it is better to leave such questions to the professionals. Another Rwandan voice – a minister? – intercedes. Certainly the footage is too graphic for some, he says, and no doubt those are the voices you will hear raised in protest. But there are many who support those programs, he insists. Perhaps they are just less vocal than the critics. It is impossible to say.

It is an unsatisfactory exchange – so typical, in all its subterfuge and obfuscation and denial, of what I’ve come to expect from this government. But then, could it be any other way? Sixteen years on and still Rwanda is wrestling its demons, trying to balance the need to move on with the equally important need to remember. Say what you will about the government’s attempts to manipulate these memories for political gain at the national level; still, stripped of such cynicism, that need exists at the personal level, too.

This commemoration week is tricky business – I think it does more harm than good. For many survivors it is overwhelming: you see them staggering through the streets, as if in a daze, or sitting, weeping, on the curb. And it is a polarizing week, too. For all the talk of reconciliation, this is a Tutsi remembrance. In Bujumbura earlier this year, a Human Rights Watch researcher told me about the hostile receptions Hutus – even Hutu survivors – received at commemoration ceremonies, how they’re still treated with resentment, suspicion. What does it mean to reopen this divide every April? To force this national mourning – this public shaming – onto an ethnic majority that still feels largely excluded from power?

For journalists, certainly, it is an interesting time to be in Rwanda. But here I am, instead, back at the border. The Rwandan official is interested to hear, as per my African-border-crossing narrative, that I am a student. Master’s, or Ph.d.? Instantly I invent an academic history for myself, I advise him on scholarships, bemoan the lack of job prospects for a – ahem – Master’s graduate student in literature like me. He is sympathetic. Surely there will be something? Academia, perhaps, I sigh. There is always a demand for some particular skill or knowledge, he says, stamping my passport. Suddenly, my imaginary future looks bright.

On the Congolese side, no fictitious discourse on lit. theory. Still, I’m surprised at how helpful the woman – large, pretty, smiling, with long corn rows and wide, high hips – is. She stamps my passport, calls out to a colleague. She hands him 500 francs for transport from what appears to be petty cash – ! – and tells him to take me to the immigration office in town. The man’s eyes narrow. He is slender, mustachioed, his uniform is ill-fitting. He has a gruff manner and shrewd eyes – I like him not one bit. Surely now, I think, comes the shakedown? We take motos the short distance to immigration, he tells me to pay the drivers. He has pocketed the 500 francs from his colleague, but that’s the extent of his criminal designs. Standing outside the immigration bureau, stocky men in blue uniforms reposing in the shade, he even demands that my driver give me 100 francs change.

Inside, upstairs, and everything is smooth, brisk. A tall, pot-bellied man asks for my passport, sending a colleague downstairs to retrieve some forms. Another man arrives and ushers us into his office. His manner is brusque, bullying, but otherwise he seems to be on the level. The fives and tens I’d fretfully packed away into various pockets stay put. I would like to go to Bukavu? I would. When? As soon as possible. The man glances at his wristwatch, gold and gaudy, as if he might be able to ship me out this afternoon. I can come back tomorrow at noon, he says, and still have time to catch the two o’clock canôt rapide. I hand him $155, which disappears into his desk. C’est fini. Painlessly, in under five minutes, the deed is done. And while all sorts of horrors might await tomorrow – a “lost” passport, a processing fee – I am speechless at the efficiency I’ve just witnessed. Nowhere else in Congo, I suspect, would such a scene as this play out. This place, I decide, has its own sort of magic.

The day has been hot, muggy; I’m wilting in the sunlight. At the Nyira I sink into my seat with my notebook and a thermos full of cheap instant coffee. The terrace is surrounded by palm trees, vines, succulents. The birds are hysterical in the treetops. Across from me an American man – raucous, campy, flamboyantly gay – is entertaining his colleagues. He wants to know how to say “you fat bastard” in Swahili, and “fuck off,” and “shit.” Closer to me another American, a willowy blonde, is talking about opening a new nightclub with a Congolese friend. “People work so hard here, it’s always a crisis, and I don’t think they want to hear the same music when they go out,” she says, with great feeling. She knows a DJ in London who wants to come to Africa – why not Goma? It seems only logical, since Goma is a place in Africa. Her speech is slow, airy: you can picture the words floating down from a cloud like snowflakes, settling on her tongue. She wants to play her colleague a song on her iPhone. He nods, types something on his laptop. And what about the color scheme? She thinks purple – she wants her clients to feel like royalty. More tapping on the keyboard. “Will there be bottle service?” she asks. A very blank look from across the table. She explains the concept of people paying extraordinary amounts of money to buy a bottle and sit at a table. “You know, like Vegas?” she says. Her colleague’s fingers rest uncertainly on the keyboard. He is not sure what to do next.

So many crazy schemes are floating around in Goma. Surely there’s a market for such a velvet-roped fantasia, too. I can picture the Russians, the Lebanese, the Congolese with their gold watches and peacock shirts, paying exorbitant amounts to sit and be looked at. And besides, there are enough humanitarian rackets in eastern Congo already. Something should be said in praise of originality, too.

The coffee, the garden – somewhere there must be birds of paradise – didn’t do the trick. Instead I am easily distracted, high-strung. I write a few words and stare at the words I’ve written. It’s no use. The sky is still overcast, the rains haven’t come, but the air is warm and sticks to your skin. I head back to the hotel to take another shower – this time of day the cold water is a relief. I tip the pitcher over my neck and shoulders. I’ve made no plans for the evening, and I’m undecided, now, how I want it spent. I’ve grown cranky – it feels like this day has been wasted. Three days have passed since I arrived from Gisenyi, but it feels like life – Congolese life – is eluding me. My days have passed in a blur of coffees and schwarmas, my nights drinking with expats. The time for me is short, but so far, it seems like I’ve been getting nowhere.

In Goma, even the billboards confuse the fuck out of me

To shake off this sour mood – if nothing, I am a man of many sour moods – I decide to have a schwarma and a drink with an expat. It is, admittedly, an alluring life here. At Doga with Rachel, nursing the two-for-one happy hour special, I realize I’m not the only one to succumb to Goma’s lazy charms. Rachel has spent the day making ice cream – a tremendous failure – and taking her boat onto the lake. In the sky a rainbow was bending from the green hills of Rwanda toward the Congo; it was like a gift, an annunciation, a validation of her life here. Outside, in the jungles of North Kivu, the militias fought and raged; here, in Goma, in Chez NGO, you made ice cream and paddled across the lake. Rachel is no fool; she knows how ridiculous it all is. But still, here you were, at the end of one contract and looking for another. She had an offer floated to her for a one-month project in Jordan, but Africa has been her on-again-off-again home for five years. Before Congo, Uganda; before that, the Gambia, Senegal. She wants to come back to Congo and work in communications, but somewhere in the interior, far from Goma’s expat whirl. “I feel like I don’t know anything about Congolese life here,” she says. Then she phones her driver and we’re dashing through the rain, a truck waiting to carry us home.

It’s after ten now, the city is at rest. Just a few vehicles – aid workers returning from dinner, perhaps; a few lonesome motorbikes – drive down the Sake road. Moto drivers gather in the fluorescent glare of a petrol station. On the side of the road, youths selling loaves of bread in the dark. Nyiragongo is glowing dimly – somewhere beyond it, past distant mountains, fire and brimstone. And here, on these black streets of Goma, silent houses sitting in the darkness like blank faces, revealing nothing of their hidden lives.

What is my per diem?

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 15 – April 4

Easter Sunday. The rains are heavy. Yesterday I’d told myself I would be up early, I would find a church to see the Congolese in all their Easter finery. Now it’s not an option, it sounds like the Great Flood is rising outside my doorway. In all fairness, I’m grateful: I need the rest. I listen to the rain at eight, at nine, stretched out luxuriously under the covers. It really is a beautiful bed. At close to ten I get up, go through my sluggish morning ablutions. The rain is still steady, pattering on the roof. Doga will not be an option this morning; nor will the lakefront terrace at the Ihuzi. Instead I have a coffee in the hotel restaurant – plastic floral arrangements, carvings of giraffes, of Nubian women. The tablecloths and curtains are like an old lady’s sitting room’s. The news from Kinshasa is blaring at a high volume. I have a single packet of bitter, Star brand instant coffee from Uganda, for which I’m charged an unreasonable two bucks.

The sun has suddenly, stubbornly appeared in the sky. The streets are empty. I had hoped, after the over-indulgences of these past two nights, to wander around the city, have some spontaneous encounters with more Jerusalems and Patricks and Lazares. But today, Sunday morning, the city is listless. Bored attendants sit outside a few clothing shops – the rest are closed. There’s hardly any traffic on the Sake road. The motos cruise past, solitary, or in pairs – tomorrow they’ll be in unruly packs, fighting through the traffic. A Sunday-morning mood suddenly comes over me – a desire to sit by the lake, read a book, eye the Italians by the swimming pool. On days like this, I truly believe I am the World’s Worst Traveler. What good could come of a lazy day of schwarma and American fiction? It’s too late, I am decided. I stop for Lebanese takeaway, double-fisting kafta sandwiches to the delight and distress of the other clientele. Then I am on my way to the lake, prepared to waste a full day in a recuperative stupor.

I also have some serious mulling to do. In the next day or two I’ll have to make a decision about Bukavu, to which my eight-day tourist visa doesn’t extend. This is its own brand of comedy: each province of the Congo is apparently a separate bureaucratic fiefdom, subject to its own visas, taxes and levies. My North Kivu visa will do me no good in South Kivu; for that I will have to buy a month-long visa de voyage for the entire Congo, which, as I already learned at the border, would set me back a whopping 150 bucks. It’s a steep price – steeper than I had planned. Still, I suspect I’ll regret it later if I decide to pass on Bukavu. Chances are that money will just get pissed away at Doga or Coco Jamboo, or at a string of farewell dinners in Kigali. Even before I’ve made my decision I’m calculating costs in my notebook. Once these mental preparations have been made, I know the next step Monday morning will be a visit to the immigration office.

The Sunday scene at the Ihuzi is lively – the pool is crowded, the pampered children of the Congolese elite are causing a ruckus in their plastic flotation devices. So much for a quiet, reflective coffee by the lake. I scan the bar for familiar faces, then again for attractive ones. An Italian girl, I think, with an older couple; another, sitting by herself with a salad. I find a shady table by the lake and order a beer. The water is calm, glassy; harmless puffs of cloud sit over the hills of Rwanda. There’s not a hint of rain in the sky. It’s turning out to be a beautiful day.

Looking toward Rwanda

If you spend enough time around the Ihuzi, if you have a knack for languages, there is probably much to be learned about the dynamics of eastern Congo. There are the Congolese with their expensive, monogrammed luggage sets, gold on their fingers and wrists. And the pilots – Russian, Ukrainian, Serb – who spend their days on perilous missions into the bush. Many are Cold War veterans: 20 years ago they might have been flying Soviet weapons into Angola, Mozambique. Now they are flying humanitarian missions into Beni, and diamonds out of Kisangani. The stress and the pay are high. On the weekend you see them by the pool, guzzling beer, manhandling young Congolese girls, their ruddy Slavic faces lit with mirth.

There are the aid workers, too – even now with their laptops and spreadsheets, preparing reports, briefings. And the Chinese – like some nocturnal species, you know they exist, but impossible to spot. They live in seclusion, pre-fab enclaves in the bush, maybe, protected by small armies. Their faces are lined – a line for each care and sorrow of exile. Two men sit by the water with fishing rods cast into the lake, staring silently at the surface. Maybe they are thinking of fishing trips in northern China – some tranquil spot ringed by mountains and myths, far from the chaos of Congo.

Suddenly, a familiar face – Joseph, the Brit from Kinshasa, arriving with a friend. Here is another of his Kinshasa connections – Jean Marc, French-Canadian, working with another international NGO. He has just arrived to establish himself in Goma; they are both marveling at the differences from Kinshasa, the few hassles, the quality of life – and, of course, the sun-blessed climate. They swap stories about life in Congo – the cons and costs of Kinshasa, the nightlife, the bribes and scandals. Their eyes are lit with mischievous mirth. Recently the British army was invited to train Congolese soldiers, says Jean Marc. They had budgeted $3 per soldier per day for lunch – more than enough for a meal of fou-fou and beans, maybe even goat meat. The generals were outraged. They refused to accept anything less than $5 a head – enough, says Jean Marc, to feed the soldiers and ensure there was something left over to skim. The soldiers would not accept $3, said the generals; I’m sure the soldiers themselves were far more willing. The British, instead, reneged on the deal. The theft was too brazen. “And then they’re going to say, ‘The British won’t feed our soldiers,’” says Jean Marc. Another story making the rounds in Kinshasa: a program was set up to register the police officers in each of the Congo’s provinces. There was international funding, biometric scanning. A trial run was set up in Equateur province. At the final tally they found 6,000 officers in the flesh but 10,000 on the payroll – 4,000 ghost workers whose salaries were being divvied up among local officials. The donors were outraged, the program was put on hold. But have you heard, says Joseph, that another group has been contracted to continue the program? They would do it at twice the cost, their method was flawed – but the executives had close ties to members of the ruling party.

It was a typical story. Last year Jean Marc had been traveling in the Central African Republic, assessing the possibility of setting up a project for his organization there. The country was a mess: the government was corrupt, they had no control outside the capital, Bangui. Militias ran the countryside. But Jean Marc found them easy to work with: they were eager for outside help, had not yet learned, in a country with so few aid groups on the ground, how to milk the system. Congolese officials had been dealing with humanitarian agencies, donor countries, the Bretton Woods institutions, for years. You couldn’t even come here to offer free training programs for soldiers, police, local officials. “The first question is, ‘What is my per diem?’” says Jean Marc.

Three Russians in Speedos come trotting by, water dripping from their shoulders. Two go plunging into the lake. A third stops, begins to flirt with a young Congolese woman. They are already familiar – she hesitates, she is wearing makeup and heels, he’s threatening to toss her into the water. They laugh, he isn’t serious. He puts a hand on her shoulder and another on her waist, as if to lead her in a waltz. The others climb out, shivering, shaking the water from their ears. “Tomorrow they will fly to Bunia or Dungu,” says Jean Marc – two of the Congo’s hot spots. Today they have no cares: the life of a bush pilot. Joseph says he won’t go anywhere near a Western bar on Wednesday night. He flies out Thursday morning; he doesn’t want to know what his pilots were up to the night before.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Goma.

We finish our beers, and Joseph invites me to visit his organization’s site in town. It is on the city’s outskirts – past Cirezi, bumping along the same rough road that took me to the MSF party on Friday. We get lost; even Joseph has a hard time finding the place, down Goma’s bumpy back roads. We spot a young boy hobbling across the jagged volcanic rocks on crutches – “One of ours,” says Joseph, with a self-deprecating laugh – and we know we’re on the right track. Finally we find the gate; a boy wearing a leg brace walks stiffly through the door. Inside a dozen youths, mostly polio victims, are playing in the yard. Boys on crutches are kicking a soccer ball around. Another, the muscles of his back atrophied, crawls across the porch on all fours. They are laughing, high-spirited. Joseph beams with paternal pride, calling to them from across the yard.

Pascal, a handsome man in his thirties, one of the first Stand Proud members in Goma, greets us and shows us around. There is a workshop on site where the association’s members build leg braces – some for their own use, some for other polio victims in Goma, some for the NGO Handicapped International. They buy scrap metal from the market, he explains, then hammer and twist the braces into shape, screw on joints so they bend at the knees. At the bottom the braces clip into shoes specially made for each member. Pascal pulls up his own pant leg to show the brace attached to his shoe. Next we are introduced to another man, the physical therapist. There are six-, seven-hour long sessions for the members three days a week, teaching them how to walk on their braces. (There is weight training, too, he says, gesturing to an old weight machine in the corner.) It is painful rehabilitation; some, says Joseph, give up on the exercises. Many are at an age where they’ve already learned to live with their handicaps. Their muscles have atrophied, their limbs are distorted. It is easier to cope with their disabilities, as they have for years, than to start from the beginning. In Kinshasa, says Joseph, there are personality clashes between wheelchair-bound handicaps and the members of Stand Proud. They have spent months and years going through a difficult rehabilitation process, reclaiming the use of their limbs. They look down on the men and women in wheelchairs, he says. They think they’ve given up.

Next door is a wooden clapboard house, sooty and weather-stained, the floors dusty concrete. Here is where Stand Proud’s members – thirty-some-odd, their ages ranging from five to 25 – live. Pascal leads us through the living room, crowded, full of excited shouts. A boy sits against the wall, his legs encased in plaster, a rosary around his neck. He is genial, he smiles and wants to shake my hand. Next a bedroom – a single bed, a clothesline across the room, shirts hanging from nails in the wall. Later, Pascal explains, when there is money, there will be two more beds squeezed into the room. Another bedroom – just a foam mattress on the floor. Most of the bedrooms are similarly furnished. Outside two youths – one on crutches, the other bent like a car jack – are fussing with a pot over a charcoal brazier. They are preparing fou-fou for dinner – a maize meal porridge, like the Kenyan ugali. Joseph asks what the meal times are – he has been full of questions, this is an important field visit for him. Pascal says there is lunch at noon, dinner between seven and eight. And breakfast? There is no money for breakfast, he says. Sometimes they have some tea. Joseph listens and nods.

I have complicated feelings through all of this. Certainly the place is in rough shape: it is hard to imagine all those bodies sharing tattered foam mattresses, or, as Pascal says, as some prefer, sleeping on the porch. And yet this place, for all its shortcomings, offers a better life than most of these boys would find at home. Most no doubt come from large families; in those poor households, difficult choices have to be made. There is never enough money to send all the children to school. And so parents gamble – they decide which child has the best chance to succeed. The rest are left to work around the house, in the fields, in the city. Probably these boys would get no education if they were left with their families. But Stand Proud is paying their school fees; most, smart, determined, are among the best in their classes. On the porch two older boys – handsome, confident youths – are kicking a soccer ball between them, keeping it in the air. I have to ask Joseph if they’re Stand Proud members; only when I look closely can I see the outlines of the braces worn beneath their pants. Their steps are smooth, easy. They look no different than anybody else.

As we’re leaving, we poke our heads into the living room to say goodbye. The boys are sitting on chairs and benches, lying on the floor; their attention is fixed to a small TV against the wall. TP Mazembe, the Congolese powerhouse, and APR, from Kigali, are playing the second leg of their tie in the African Champions League. Two weeks ago, I watched APR score a huge upset in Kigali. Today, everything is on the line.

We’re on our way to the gate when we hear cheers, ecstatic cries. TP Mazembe has scored. We look back and see the boys leaping to their feet, bodies contorted, twisted at odd angles, fists pumping in the air. The living room is like a carnival, the day, the hour for them has become historic. As we shut the gate, we can still see them through the doorway, hopping madly on their feet.

Back in town we visit Heal Africa, Goma’s best health clinic, where Stand Proud’s members have their surgeries performed. The organization has an arrangement with the hospital – the surgeries are deeply discounted – but Joseph wants to tour the facility for himself. Again he has detailed questions – where were the plasters prepared? did Stand Proud bring food for its members from the house, or cook it here? who was funding the place? – and all the while he listens intently, nods his head. Later in the week he’ll be meeting with the administrators, hoping to strengthen their partnership; there would be a meeting with Handicap International, too, to see if they might be able to help him secure more donor funds. Much of Joseph’s time was spent like this – scrambling, cajoling, searching for partnerships, funds. It was constantly an uphill climb. Stand Proud had done much for its members in Goma – yet still they had no breakfast, they slept on the floor.

It’s been a long afternoon. After our visit to Heal Africa, we drag our heels to Doga for coffee. The caffeine gives us a much-needed boost. Before long we’ve moved on to beers. Kate joins us just after seven – the mood shift is almost tangible. Joseph, I can see, is putting his best foot forward – to be 22 again! Kate is just passing by for a drink, though; when she leaves an hour later, Joseph’s spirits deflate. Suddenly we’re both restless; a female presence has thrown off the evening’s balance. We’re looking to move the evening along, to find some diversion, but we’re both strangers here. We run through our contacts – nothing. We have dinner at Coco Jamboo, the night has an air of winding down. By the time we get the bill I’m beat, I’ve spent the last of my money, and we’re forced to concede the night is through. Joseph is sullen as he gets on his moto. Tomorrow is the start of a short and busy week. He was hoping this night would turn out better.

First, you must buy a chicken.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 14 – April 3

My 32nd birthday – the morning of it, the daylight hours – starts with headaches and regret. The usual drinker’s remorse. At half-past eight my head is throbbing, my tongue is fuzzy. It’s been awhile since my last round of heavy boozing. Only as the cobwebs clear does it start to make sense: the grand Mützigs at Petit Bruxelles, at least three stiff drinks – rum and Coke! – at the MSF house. This would be a morning best spent in bed. But my time here in Goma is short – the thought of a wasted morning, a wasted day, stings my conscience. Slowly I swing my legs from the bed; the rest of my body catches up with them. Footsteps outside the door, voices, sweeping. This is Africa. Even when the night ends late, the days begin early.

What I want most is a quick shower and a cup of coffee to start the day. But the bathroom is like a construction site, dirt and grit everywhere. Slowly I negotiate a way to the toilet, wash my face, brush my teeth. In the corner is a 35-gallon drum filled with water; there is nothing from the taps. I fill a bucket for my shower – these ablutions take ages. One by one I wash my limbs, my chest, I shampoo and rinse my hair. It’s almost ten by the time I finally leave the hotel, sluggishly plodding into the day.

It is a beautiful morning; again I give silent praise for the miracle of this Great Lakes climate. The day is brisk, dry, harmless clouds piled in the sky. Of course, this is the rainy season: it won’t last. A few hours from now torrential rains will be pounding the tin roofs of Goma, running in dark, sludgy rivers by the side of the road. Until the afternoon, though, I can count on this sunlight to lift my spirits. And already, walking along the clamor of the Sake road, I feel energized, revived.

A man pushes his chukudu along the Sake road

Coffee at Chez Doga is becoming a morning ritual; I’m not sure why. The coffee is burnt, the servers are indifferent. Still, the fresh air and caffeine are both doing me good. Overhead the planes pass – Antonovs, fat-bellied cargo planes. All day you hear the drone of their engines, you see them carrying their unknown cargo – coltan? gold? guns? – back and forth over the lake. Some fly so low on the approach that they rattle the windows. Instinctively, I find myself ducking my head. The airport in Goma has witnessed more than a few tragedies; the safety record in the Congo’s aviation history is catastrophic.

My headache is only getting worse – the coffee was a mistake. I have a hard time staying hydrated under the best of circumstances; this morning, I can practically feel my brain and liver cells gasping for water. The high mood leaving the hotel didn’t last; my spirits are low. I’m feeling grumpy and indecisive. I can’t decide if I should have lunch, guzzle more water, or go back to bed. These are the bad travel days – the ones where there’s nothing you want so much as an aspirin, a sofa, and a pile of DVDs. I have chicken schwarma at Kivu Market while the morning wastes away. It’s after noon and the rain clouds are starting to blow in. I buy paracetemol at a pharmacy and another liter of water. I buy another chicken schwarma. Some masochistic part of me – the writer, or the New Yorker, or both – decides caffeine is the only way to make it through the day. I flag down a moto on the street, negotiate a price. I make it to the Isuhi Hotel as the rain begins to pour.

On the back of a moto

The place is like a country club. Cranes strut across the lawn. Three expats come prancing in from the rain holding tennis rackets. Well-dressed families and their precocious kids sit over $15 plates of steak and frites. I order a bottle of water. Chelsea and Manchester United are playing on the big screen, drawing the usual crowds to the bar. The reception is terrible – probably the storm is wreaking havoc on the satellite dish. The flickering images make my head feel worse. I stare at the lake, gray and choppy, and listen to the planes buzzing overhead.

Probably I would be happy here – that’s what I’m thinking. Goma, this oddball town – in so many ways, an advertisement for all that’s wrong with how the West and Africa intersect – I think I could be happy here. The energy, the dark comedy of Congolese life on the one hand; balanced with the expat life, the swank house parties, tennis by the lake, wringing one’s hands over the fate of the Congo over $12 brochettes. (Goma, I suspect, has better per-capita dining options than any city in Africa.) Probably I could fall for an Italian, a pretty French girl, who heads off in the morning in a flak jacket and wears lipstick at night. Intimate dinners at Coco’s, or Le Chalet. Radioing the driver when we’re ready to head back to the villa.

Back at the hotel, my African life. The parking lot is muddy, there are puddles outside my door. Powerful smells from the bathroom. Still, mine is a cozy room. The bed is luxurious. Again I sprawl out, stare at the ceiling: I have time to kill. I’m meeting Kate at Doga for a birthday drink, but not for two hours. Twenty minutes pass. I’m afraid to doze off – I might not make it out of bed. I dress instead. I’ll have an early drink, I decide, fill up pages of my notebook. There is a barbecue on the lake later tonight – an interesting scene, says Kate. A Belgian family, they’ve lived in the Congo for years. I picture a fussy old man in white linen, gin and tonics on the lawn. Stories of the old Belgian Congo – they call Kinshasa Leopoldville; Stanleyville instead of Kisangani. The casual bigotry of colonials who have watched the Congolese train veer off the tracks. I hope I can make it through the night. I hope I can make it to the bar without getting mud on my linen pants.

At Doga a large bouncer is already manning the door. Behind his burly head is a sign, a picture of an X’ed out assault weapon. “NO WEAPON,” it says. “ARMES INTERDITES.” You do not want some drunk and unruly MONUC soldiers, I suspect, getting trigger-happy around the whores.

It’s after six when Kate arrives, carrying a colorful woven bag. Très congolaise. It’s been more than two years since we met in Nairobi, but we’ve stayed in touch, we know the broad outlines of one another’s lives. She has been in Goma for six months – the time flies, she’s finished her contract, she’ll be flying home to South Africa in a few weeks. The next step is a question mark. She’s been short-listed for a job in Kabul, something in communications, and she has a fingers-crossed sort of hopefulness one doesn’t typically associate with Afghanistan. If not that, who knows? She’s had a good life in Goma – her employer, a large aid organization, treats its staff like pampered children – and her job here has crystallized her plans to stay in the development field. And me – what about me? I’ll be in South Africa in three weeks’ time, starting the next chapter of my oddball life. I have a travel story about Joburg to write for The Washington Post, and we talk about possible angles – there are so many angles. Kate sits there like a prospective employer, scribbling notes. She has some people for me to look up in Joburg – and in Goma, too. Here is the name of a filmmaker, she says. Here is the number for a conservationist with the WWF.

She phones her driver and soon he pulls up – we have a hard time finding him at first, there are so many SUVs idling outside. The road to her compound is like all roads in Goma, rough, jagged heaps of volcanic rock. The truck rocks from side to side. We pass an army barracks – wretched camps surrounded by barbed wire-crowned walls – and then her house, bright and festive, glowing in the dark like an ocean liner at sea.

The place is a palace: ten-roomed, towering, ceilings like Versailles. It is a monument, too, to African kitsch – all sconces and chandeliers, animal prints, elaborate balustrades. The tenants are well looked-after – the cleaning lady, the cook, a gardener tending to the lawns – and it’s easy to see why Kate found her life here so appealing. What a different life I would have, settled in a place like Goma. Thinking of my miserly room at Cirezi, the shared toilet, the daily privations of my traveling life.

The group is ready and off we go, bumping again over these apocalyptic Goma roads. I am happily squeezed beside Lea, a pretty French blonde with eyes the size of dinner plates. She was the girl described to me as “hardcore” last night; her base, in Rutshuru, is in an especially volatile area. Every two weeks she comes back to Goma for much-needed decompression (and shopping, too: later she’ll describe how her money – rarely spent in Rutshuru – gets frittered away on imported cheese and wine and DVDs). There are few expats in Rutshuru; she has a 7:30 curfew. If she meets a colleague for drinks, she says, it has to be at 5 o’clock. By 7 she’s hurrying home, spending a drunken evening on the sofa watching last year’s blockbusters.

We reach the house and the gate swings open and it’s like arriving in Xanadu. The driveway is lined with palms – from where we are, we can’t even see the house. We’re all of us oohing and aahing as we crunch along the gravel – even by Goma standards, it seems this is a special outing. Suddenly the house, ranch-style, lit up, with floor-to-ceiling windows: less Congo than Malibu. The rumor is that the house has already been sold to the wife of President Kabila, who was looking for a second (third? fourth?) home by the lake. Beside it is a kidney-shaped swimming pool, attractively lit from within. “It’s like The O.C.,” someone says. Through the windows we glimpse a living room with expensive track lighting, stylish furnishings no doubt imported from Copenhagen, Tokyo, Milan. This is not what I’d expected. From Kate’s description of the family, I was expecting a white-washed villa, terra cotta roof tiles, a genial sloshing of drinks on the lawn with cousin Leopold, just in from Brussels.

Instead there is down-tempo house music, handsome men in open-collared shirts, an attractive blonde. Bruce – the nephew of the homeowner, Kate’s current love interest – is a mountain of 22-year-old muscle, sweet, baby-faced – by all appearances, a good kid. Uncle Pascal, he says, is vacationing in Belgium. I can see why he’d want to get away, I say, taking in the lake, the house, the jet ski, the swimming pool, with an expansive gesture. Bottles of wine on the bar – South African, French. The family, says Bruce, only arrived two decades ago. They were not old-time colonials, after all. Uncle Pascal works ambiguously in mechanics – “Uncle Pascal’s garage,” said with deprecating humor, will be a running joke tonight. Bruce himself was born in the Congo; he left when he was six. The family was here during all the troubles of the early-‘90s – riots in ’93, Rwandan refugees in ’94. And then, of course, the war against Mobutu. His family had to be evacuated in ’96, when all the expats were being shuttled to Gisenyi. According to Kate, his parents were the last expats to leave Goma. Somehow, they hadn’t gotten word of the evacuation; they watched the planes and helicopters flying over the lake from their lawn. Bruce’s dad – a handsome, athletic, stylish man with close-cropped gray hair and a mischievous glint in his eye – strikes me as just the sort of guy who could miss an evacuation. He is free-spirited, a dancer. I can picture him finishing off a bottle of red, watching the choppers, wondering about all the fuss.

The place is filling up – more of the same faces from last night. Expat life in Goma is, I think, like a big, happy, incestuous family. The grill is crowded with sausages, the table full of imported condiments. A woman next to me hears I am a journalist. She is the communications manager for Virunga National Park – she is used to my ilk. Last year poaching was a hot story, she says, the gorillas being killed for their meat. The conservationists were up in arms, the NGOs. The story practically sold itself, she says. Now she is hoping to get some press for the volcano. This time it isn’t just scientists, volcanologists excited by Nyiragongo, she says. The volcano has opened again to tourists. For a year and a half, the security situation was too tense; but now, since March 1, the tourists were allowed to climb it again, to see the lava lake, to camp on its slopes. “We’ve already sold more than 60 permits,” she says, almost surprised herself. I tell her that a friend climbed the volcano just two weeks ago – the pictures were astonishing. I don’t tell her about the brutal seven-hour slog, the rain and hail that are keeping me from going. Or the problem of the $200 permit. She tells me I should go if I have the chance. I tell her I’d love to. The sausages are delicious.

It is a good party, more low-key than last night’s – everyone seems to be in a state of permanent recovery here, shaking off nights past. I imagine Goma is a very good posting for the world’s aid workers. More guests arrive: Congolese men, handsome, well-dressed, strutting across the dancefloor with their chests out, like the prow of a ship; girls in short skirts and high heels. Jackie, an American, the blonde I noticed when I walked in, says she has been in Goma for three years, moving between jobs. An air of permanent transition about her. The life is good, she has a boyfriend, there’s always a party. Tomorrow someone will have a barbecue – at Pascal’s, or Cristof’s. “Not us,” she says, shaking her attractive blonde locks. “We’re still tired from last week.”

On the periphery of the dancefloor, with Lea. A pity to think of her wasting away in Rutshuru. She says she’s starved for company, I’m welcome to visit. I would like that, for all the obvious reasons. And to get out of Goma, too, to see some of the countryside. There are baroque security procedures for me to go through, she says, forms and waivers for me to sign. The situation there is unpredictable – just a few weeks ago, bandits swept through the city at night, looting – but she enjoys the life, she enjoys the people. Always demands for money, but in a soft, subtle way. A man has had a son, and says the day calls for a celebration; it is implicit that Lea will be buying the beer. There’s no way to sustain it, she says; everyone has eight, nine children, there are births every week. Generosity has its limits.

Recently she wanted to buy a cat for company. There was a man in town who kept a few. She asked her guard to approach him on her behalf. “First, you must buy a chicken,” he said, as if it were the most natural thing: to buy a cat, first a chicken.

We make an early night of it. It’s just after one as we pile sleepily into the car. The streets are plunged in darkness. Across the city, Nyiragongo glows. Next to the hotel, Sin City is going even louder than last night. Dozens of moto drivers waiting, glaring. I rattle my first against the gate. Stephen, a Frenchman, another coworker of Kate’s, leans his head out the car window, concerned. Finally the askari, sleepy and suspicious, opens the door. Instantly he smiles, warms – he knows he will get 500 francs for his trouble. I wave to the others and vanish into the darkness of Cirezi. Music rattles the windowpanes, the sound of laughter, bottles breaking on cement floors. I’ve been told Sin City gets rough after hours, but by the sound of things, it’s pretty rough at all hours. I wish I had the strength and courage to explore. Instead I lie in bed, listening to the syrupy voice of Koffi Olomide, the shouting of young restless men, the cries of the whores, the clamor shaking the walls with such force that the room seems to be swaying, until finally, in its own strange way, the party rocks me to sleep.

This is not the real Africa.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 13 – April 2

Despite the thin, musty foam mattress at the Gisenyi City View, I sleep like a prince. I feel fresh and revived in the morning, refusing, even, to let the scuzziness of the bathroom get to me. It is a brilliant day, the air sharp, Nyiragongo’s blue-gray profile looming over the market. At the auberge, in its cheerful garden, coffee and a much-needed plate of gatogo – the banana stew I’d grown so hooked on in Burundi. It’s the most I’ve had in my stomach in nearly two days. It is the first time, too, that I’ve felt a sense of confidence all week. I know Goma, I know this border. Congo doesn’t scare me today.

A last glimpse of Gisenyi

My bags are packed. I make a quick bank run – my stash of U.S. dollars has been woefully depleted this week – and then I am at the border, clearing Rwandan customs, and finally – finally! – stepping into the Congo.

What a difference, what briskness, after the hassles of Bukavu. The traffic all day – UN staffers, humanitarians, casual tourists, journalists – is such that the sight of a white face in Goma doesn’t excite Pavlovian impulses. No lengthy interrogations, no shameless shakedowns. I hand my passport and $35 to the official. She smiles. I wait. Another group of tourists is nearby, chatting amiably. We could be at any border crossing in the world. A man approaches, dour, a face full of flesh. “What is your job?” he asks. (English!) “I am a student.” “You are here to do some research?” Sure! Why not? “I am,” I say. “I am doing research on the Great Lakes.” Not entirely false. He nods and walks off. Minutes pass. An American friend, Rachel – an aid worker in Goma – arrives with her passport in hand. She is spending the day in Gisenyi – as easy as a trip to the corner store. She begins to dish out advice to the other tourists – what company to see the gorillas with, how much to climb the volcano. She hands them a business card for the tour company she prefers. Quite a useful one, that Rachel. I’m called inside – another short consultation over the length of my stay. I ask about Bukavu, and the woman’s eyes go wide. The eight-day visa, it seems, is only good for North Kivu province – lucky that I asked. If I want to go to Bukavu, she says, I’ll have to pay for the full, month-long Congolese visa – less than the $300 asking price at Rusizi, but still, a hefty hundred and fifty bucks. This will require some consideration. I thank the woman – so helpful, these North Kivu Congolese! – and see Rachel off to Gisenyi. Then I am slinging my bag over my shoulder, waving off the money-changers, and trudging my way into Goma.

This is a place that excites powerful and complex memories. I had walked this same road five months ago, had come with Steve Terrell – good-hearted, self-righteous, oh-so-American Steve! – a sort of freelance do-gooder who had been bringing medicine to a group of IDPs living in a squalid camp outside of Goma. We had met in Kigali; I was interviewing him to replace me in the house I was about to vacate in Remera. He had told me a tragic tale of lost IDPs – 6,000 Congolese, he said, neglected by the international community – and the next day we were in the back of the Virunga bus, racing toward the border. Steve was on a mercy mission; my reasons were more ambiguous. This might be The Story, I told myself – the one that would finally propel me from the bottom-feeding ranks of travel writers into the world of Serious Reporting. (Oh, the Congo would show me a thing or two.) On the bus Steve warned me and Lindsay, a roommate from Kigali, that the border would be overwhelming. It would be best to get behind him, he said. I gave him a frank look. I was full of anxieties before that trip, to be sure; but in my time, let’s face it, I’d seen a few things myself.

In Goma, just past the border, the money-changers swarmed. Holding their bricks of Congolese notes, colorful bits of play money. Steve wanted to handle the negotiations, but he had the exchange rates all wrong. He was making a mess of things – some savior! Then the moto drivers surrounding us, young, aggressive, in the manner of their kind. Steve’s warnings were ill-founded – I’d seen this sort of thing before. Then we were barreling through the dust and grit and free-wheeling derby of downtown Goma. The IDP camp would indeed be tragic, but this – the noise, the traffic, the energetic hustle and chaos – this was something to marvel at.

The IDPs had pitched their ragged tents in a field behind a church. They used plastic tarps and garbage bags and canvas sacks emblazoned with humanitarian logos to build these clumsy shelters. UNHCR, UNICEF, USAID. A strong gust of wind might have blown the whole place away. Steve introduced me to the camp leaders – again, these rigid hierarchies of Congolese society. There was an IDP president, a vice-president, a treasurer. Solemnly they took us around the camp, explained that the situation was dire. These people had fled fighting near their villages in North Kivu; they had come from Masisi, from Walikale, they had walked with whatever modest possessions they could carry, holding their children’s hands. The international community had abandoned them, they said. They were barred from the UN camps. They had no food or water. Steve, nodding, as grave as a crucifixion scene, carried out rudimentary check-ups on the young and old. He promised to bring eye drops for a young boy with a severe infection. On the bus back to Kigali, we were all on the verge of tears.

Now, five months later, I flag down a moto, balance my duffel bag on one leg. We zip through the streets, my driver chatting amiably in a French I only partly understand. Past the old ex-pat haunts – Chez Doga, Coco Jamboo – past the Soleil Palace, the hotel/restaurant/nightclub I stayed in when I returned to Goma a week after visiting with Steve. I had brought my friend and translator, Prudent, a journalism student at the university in Butare. It was forty bucks a night and I was on the tightest of budgets, I had almost nothing, and so there I was, sharing a bed with my translator while American hip-hop rattled the windowpanes. There was no running water, the electricity was sporadic. The living room was furnished with the gaudy opulence – the chintz curtains and gold fixtures and oversized leather sofas – of the African nouveau riche.

'Mr. Ambassador, how nice of you to come! I've been expecting you.'

After four days I was desperate. I was hemorrhaging money and the story was going nowhere. The 6,000 IDPs, it turned out, were more like 600. The Norwegian Refugee Council said that no, actually, they were being fed. The UN said they had refused to move into UN camps. The Congolese government said many weren’t IDPs at all – they were residents of Goma, trying to take advantage of the humanitarian aid being offered. And besides, they said, the security had improved: the IDPs would be sent back to their villages with a small living stipend, as soon as the government could prove they were who they said they were.

We were running in circles. And still my heart ached for these people – the sick old man with his frail, wheezing chest, the little boy whose rheumy eyes might never see again. We watched a middle-aged man, a father, making doors out of scrap metal. He sold them to the other IDPs for 400 or 500 Congolese francs – 50 cents for half a day’s work. Crouched outside his tent, hammering at rusted five-gallon cans of USAID beans and cooking oil. I knew there was a story in all of that, but what was the story? All I could think about was how much money we were burning through. I apologized and put Prudent on a bus back to Kigali. And for the next few days I wandered the city on my own, relieved of the burden of reporting a story I didn’t understand, marveling at the sheer improbabilities and incongruities of life in the Congo.

Dodging traffic on the back of a moto

Now my driver is whirling us around town, the road buckled and potholed, the traffic swerving, crawling, jockeying for some small advantage. Yes, here you know you are a long way from Rwanda. The dozens of SUVs – UN, MSF, IRC, NRC, ICRC, the whole alphabet soup – the police pickups, the lorries full of gaunt shivering soldiers, the perilous weaving motos, the wooden chukudu scooters, piled high with every imaginable cargo. The dust is thick – it stings your eyes. And an endless procession on the roadside: women with buckets of onions on their heads, barefoot children, men with briefcases, people selling, shouting, hustling, living. Oh yes, this is Goma – this is a brave new world.

At a fork in the road we turn left, darting through oncoming traffic. We stop outside a small hotel, the wall painted: Hotel Cirezi. I had called at the border; they had single rooms for twenty U.S. bucks a night. I pay the driver and heave my bag to the reception desk. The hotel is rundown but, it seems, well looked-after – that peculiar African ability to ensure that even if the paint is chipped, the windows cracked, the roof rusted and weather-beaten, there is still someone near at hand, endlessly sweeping the floors. My room is a stiff queen-sized bed and a wobbly desk and a wooden rack over which I drape some shirts. There are pegs on the wall, and I hang my linen pants. It is homely – homely enough.

Moto driver, outside the hotel

Hotel Cirezi: putting the bed in bedroom!

Outside the volcano is hidden by clouds: a storm is approaching. You can see the black sheets of rain in the distance. A dark, tumultuous mood, suitable for a city built atop black volcanic rock. With the low gray clouds sitting over this ashy landscape, you’re reminded of certain unsavory passages from Revelations. But the comparison doesn’t hold up: there is so much life – too much life – on the streets. We’re a long way from the dark days of 1994, when Rwandan refugees poured across the border, and a cholera outbreak took tens of thousands of lives; or 2002, when a volcanic eruption sent rivers of lava flowing through the city, displacing thousands; even 2008, when General Nkunda and his rebels threatened to take Goma by force. These things, you want to think, are fading from proximate threat to memory. Something like peace and stability has taken hold in Goma since – even as the war in the hills waxes and wanes. It was something I heard over and over the last time I was here: slowly, somehow, life is getting better.

Walking down the Sake road, thumbing texts into my cell phone, I dodge the traffic that has spilled in all its chaotic abundance onto the roadside. New shops are being built, trenches dug to lay a new water main (this drawing dozens of idle, curious youths). Near the university, an old man is stooping and pulling up greens in a grassy lot. Already he’s filled his plastic bag – this wily old cat, spying which of the dusty shoots might be good with a bit of salt after a long boil. Strange to think of my father here in Goma – my father, with his taste for wild dandelions growing in the baseball fields and public parks of Brooklyn. What must he look like, I always wondered, to a stranger passing by?

Near the roundabout, now, and the first cold, hard drops beginning to fall. Suddenly the sound of music – a marching band, a full ensemble of trumpets and tubas and drums and trombones, the horn section braying, swaying from side to side. Women carrying a banner: “Campagne d’Evangelation,” it says, from something called the “Federation Urbaine des Femmes.” And here they are, dozens of women in bright dresses and headscarves and t-shirts bearing the logos of their sponsors. A group passes with hymnals, laughing, singing; they smile at me and wave. Now the rain is picking up, and the women are trotting, trying to keep the tune.

A curtain of rain in the distance

I take a moto and just barely beat the rain to Chez Doga. Inside, just a few tables taken – a group in UN vests having lunch; a few Congolese sitting in a dark corner, silent, staring at their laptops. Only at night have I seen this place draw a crowd – the French and Italian aid workers, the Pakistani peacekeepers with their bristling moustaches and slender waists, the prostitutes with their magnificent coiffures. During the day, with the tables empty and the TV playing softly by the bar, it is a depressing place to be. But then, I only have coffee on my mind; and besides, there is the rain.

I sit with my notebook and pour the burnt coffee into my mug, thinking of my last visit to Goma. Doga was an educational experience for me: the menu with its $10 pizzas and $15 steaks, aid-industry prices, with those inscrutable dollar signs which, after so much time in Africa, looked like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Dimly I began to perceive the parallel economies, the parallel worlds of Goma. (The UNOCHA compound across the street seemed to glare with significance.) Next door, the Doga shop was fully stocked with top-shelf liquor and imported condiments. At night, the prostitutes would smile at me, test the water, lose interest: there were other, older johns with UN money to burn.

Down the street, after I’ve finished my coffee, I grab a snack at Kivu Market – Lebanese-owned, bursting with abundance. They’ve expanded since last year: the electronics section is full of flat-screen TVs; in sporting goods there are nautilus machines and treadmills. Say what you will about the humanitarian industry, but in Goma, it sure is good for business. The bakery is warm and smells of fresh bread; the shelves are stocked with imported cheeses. At the checkout, a big-headed, hirsute Lebanese circles like a pit boss. Outside, groups of Congolese men sitting at tables, using the WiFi. Money-changers holding stacks of Rwandan and American and Congolese bills. Around the corner, a new takeaway joint, part of Kivu Market. In just a few days, their hummus and schwarmas will become a crippling addiction.

Back at the hotel I change out of my wet clothes, rest, write. I have plans to meet Rachel later in the evening, but it’s early, just after four – I don’t want to wear myself out with aimless wandering. Boisterous voices coming from the hotel restaurant: they are off to an early start on this Friday afternoon. I lie down, stretch. The mattress is stiff and there are two plump pillows. It really is a marvelous bed.

By the time I leave the hotel just after five the air is crisp, patches of blue between the clouds. The Sake road is bristling with energy. Rush hour in Goma has a certain dark comedy – the endless processional of Land Cruisers and Prados, antennae jumping, all the logos of the great humanitarian stew, the UN jeeps and cargo trucks and armored personnel carriers. The Congolese are unmoved by all of this. They push their chukudus, walk briskly through the traffic, get muscled to the side of the road. They part as I walk past and close around me, like a wound. Outside a supermarket, the Champs Elysee, a crowd is watching videos on a 17-inch TV screen – Kenyan gospel, merry Christians swaying on a manicured hotel lawn to the heavy accompaniment of synthesizers and keyboards. There must be two dozen bystanders watching, motionless, silent, eyes fixed to the TV. A woman with a plastic wash basin full of maize on her head. A man in an ill-fitting coat, holding a laptop bag. Others, as solemn as funeral mourners. A one-legged man hobbles over on crutches, asking for money. He has red eyes and beer on his breath and teeth like a broken Steinway. I apologize, pat my pockets for emphasis, and tell him I have nothing, nothing at all.

More faces, bumping bodies, men with deformities, women built like cement mixers. Down the road I’m joined by a youth, studious-looking, in a light blue Kangol and matching pants spattered with mud. He introduces himself as Jerusalem – it’s like meeting some latter-day prophet on these Congolese streets. We walk together, trying to keep our stride through the crowds. A man brushes us aside carrying a bookshelf on his shoulder. Jerusalem says he has been six months without a job; would I be able to help him out? “I know the UN is sometimes looking for translators,” he says. A longshot, but why not hope the white man works for the UN, has powerful connections? I tell him I’ve just arrived in Goma, I’m passing through. He takes this with no hard feeling. He has been eight years out of secondary school and has struggled to find regular employment. It is a problem for the Congolese, he says. “We have spent all this time in school, but for what?” he says. The country is adrift – there is no leadership in Kinshasa. I ask about President Kabila, and Jerusalem shakes his head. “If he was a good president, I would not be without a job,” he says.

A vote of confidence for President Kabila

The traffic is like some micro-organism, infinitely replicating and sub-dividing. Two lanes become four, four become six, six become Cannonball Run. Suddenly we’ve stepped into oncoming traffic, dodging motorbikes and minibuses. Walking in Goma is a sport. We leap across puddles and dodge chukudus. We climb piles of dark gravel and volcanic rock – up and down, up and down, like a pair of mountaineers.

Jerusalem wonders now if I can’t find a job for him somewhere else – in South Africa, or Europe, or America. His eyes glitter as he pronounces that magic word. It has the power of ritual, of incantation. He knows America, of course – from music videos, from movies. Getting him there, I explain, would be no easy task. And even in America, I say, so many are out of work. He takes this news as if it’s been delivered from the heavens on the back of a thunderbolt. “I did not think it was possible to have a white with no job,” he says. Clearly, this has been a day of wonders.

At the roundabout we exchange numbers and part. “We are together,” says Jerusalem, beginning the five kilometer walk toward his home. The clouds have parted, the volcano is out. Jerusalem dodging motorbikes and dashing through puddles. The road seems to stretch to the foot of Nyiragongo in the direction of his home; in the other, traders are packing up shop at the market, a group of young men are sitting on sofas on the side of the road. Lean men, secondary-school dropouts, perhaps, with a lifetime of shuffling between odd jobs ahead of them. A city full of Jerusalems, hoping to find that golden key: a job with the UN, some NGO, a driver or security guard or translator for an organization with bank accounts in Europe, a headquarters in London, or Geneva.

At an Internet café, someone has left a PDF open on the screen – an invoice for the shipment of a C-Class Mercedes (“wine red”) from Kobe, Japan. This, too, is part of Goma’s story.

Dusk. I have time to kill. I poke my head into Soleil Palace – a dozen guys sitting around, watching TV. Doga is empty. For all the expats here, for all the stress of the day’s work, happy-hour culture hasn’t quite made it to Goma. A crowd of Congolese, a few hundred, are making their cheery way down the road. There is laughter, singing – a church has just let out. It’s not exactly the happy hour I had in mind. I find a seat outside a shopping arcade beside the Hotel des Grands Lacs, watch the to-ing and fro-ing. A boy on a motorbike cruises beside two girls, chatting, working for a smile. The girls are uninterested; they cross the road. Standing under a tree, the unlucky suitor’s friends burst into laughter.

Soon a boy comes to join me. He is short, slight, red-eyed; he wears a Muslim prayer cap which he takes off and twists in his hands. His name is Patrick. Sitting, sighing, shaking his head, he says, “Papa,” and begins telling me about his life. He came to Goma in 1994; he left Rwanda with his family – part of the hordes of refugees who came pouring across the border after the genocide. He was only four. Now his father is gone, his mother is gone; he has three young sisters to look after. He has no work, he’s never finished school – his tale of woe is endless. Passersby slow, stare; a few other youths began to rib him – whether because he’s a little conman, or because they all know his misfortunes, they’ve seen him sitting here with other wazungu, wearing his heart on his sleeve – whatever the reason, I’m not sure. But after awhile even I begin to smile at his theatrical flourishes. “Je suis avec beaucoup de souffrance,” he says, lightly touching his breast. “Pas en peu – beaucoup!” He wants to make sure I’m clear on this point: he has not had a little suffering – a lot!

Finally I’m rescued – Rachel calls, she’s on her way. I give this little long-suffering hustler 1,000 francs – a princely sum, even I can’t say why I do it. The transaction has been observed by a security guard nearby; soon he, too, is asking for money. I laugh this off. “Je ne suis pas banque,” I say. There is a lesson, I’m sure, to be learned from this. A toot of the horn; Rachel and her driver pull up, in their IRC truck. I climb into the back and shut the door, and like that, I’m transported to another side of Goma life.

We’re meeting her friends at Petit Bruxelles, a genteel outpost of European charm founded, the story goes, by the former head of OXFAM as a gift to his Congolese wife. It is lively, the tables are filling quickly. All of Goma’s expat community seems to be here, along with a few Congolese gathered around the TV at the bar. Rachel’s friends arrive in pairs, in threes. By the time we join them they’ve filled a long table – Italians and English, and a few of us Americans, sitting at the end. Rachel introduces me as her “friend from the Internet” – we’d met after reading one another’s blogs. This draws appropriate laughter. It is a good crowd, young, spirited, talkative. Maybe it’s the Italians who have this effect on us. Two balladeers move between the tables, strumming their guitars. More people arrive – white, attractive, well-dressed. The air of First World salaries. Everyone knows everyone. Laughter, greetings, kisses. Two young guys at my end of the table – from Hong Kong and the UK, both Josephs – swap stories about life in Kinshasa. British Joseph has lived there since last year: he works for an NGO that makes braces for polio victims. Hong Kong Joseph spent two months in the capital before moving to Goma. He works for Catholic Relief Services – CRS. Everyone here is known by their acronym. Rachel is IRC Rachel. I’m introduced to an attractive Russian woman – Julie, or Jenny. An acronym is supplied. Only I seem to float around as a free radical, a journalist. Two of the Italians have propped their walkie talkies on the table. They seem to give the dinner an air of urgency, of impending flight.

The talk at the table is of the MSF party – MSF, MSF, for Médecins Sans Frontières. The party is being held at a lakeside villa 30 minutes from town, and it seems that the whole of Goma, after finishing dinner at Petit Bruxelles, will reconvene there. Rachel is ambivalent: she will be up at 4:30 in the morning to see the gorillas. Everyone else is saying, “MSF! MSF!” like some talisman we use to keep evil spirits at bay. Here you begin to get a sense of the stories I’d heard about Goma in Kigali: of a bacchanalian frenzy of UN staffers and loose aid workers and strapping MONUC soldiers desperate to unwind after their stress-filled ops in the bush. It is an odd sort of life you lead here. No doubt the work leaves most feeling like an emotional punching bag, and everyone in Goma seems to have done hard time. They have spent years in Congo, or other war zones. (“We’ve already done Darfur,” a couple tells me.) Friday night, Saturday night, is when you trade your flak jacket for a strapless dress, you touch up your helmet hair with a bit of pomade, and you let your discomfort over the incongruities of Goma life – the Versailles-like villas and chauffeured vehicles and inflated salaries – recede until Monday morning.

The fabled MSF party is in full-swing by the time we get there, just after eleven. A dozen SUVs are parked outside; the music is probably rattling the windowpanes in Gisenyi. The house is massive, set against lawns that stretch 100 feet down to the lake. The significance of an MSF party soon becomes apparent. This is one of the humanitarian world’s most respected and well-funded organizations. Not for MSF bottles of lukewarm Primus and Fanta. The bar on the back porch – manned by two cheerful, gyrating, middle-aged Gauls – is well-stocked with top-shelf liquor. I suspect Lake Kivu will run dry before the MSF house does. Inside, the living room has been cleared, dozens of bodies moving on the dancefloor in 4/4 time. The soundtrack has no doubt been picked by our two French friends: ‘90s dance tracks mixed with Michael Jackson and disco standards. It is a good crowd. Pretty girls flit about in city clothes. Heels, lipstick, earrings – not a frumpy peasant skirt in sight. Couples slip into the garden. Small-talk shouted over a “Billie Jean” bassline. Someone’s colleague had to be evacuated from her post last week after soldiers looted the city. “She’s hardcore,” they say admiringly. Everyone crowds the bar for more drinks.

It is a very good party which goes on a little too long. The car I came in has left. By half-past two I’m sheepishly milling around, looking for a ride. No one is going my way, no one offers. Finally I’m rescued by the Italians – part of our dinner group from Petit Bruxelles – who are on their way into town. Already I’ve warmed to them – they are gregarious, welcoming, in the manner of most Italians. They’re also the only ones to offer me a lift.

Outside, waiting for the others to join us, we talk about the humanitarian community in Goma. Stefano, who works for Caritas, makes a face like he’s swallowed something bitter. “This is not the real Africa,” he says, referring not just to this party, but to everything it signifies. He works in the countryside, rehabilitating former child soldiers. In Goma, he says, everything is polluted by money. It is the first thing people ask for when they see a white man on the street. (Beaucoup de souffrance!) The people in the interior are kinder, more generous. “You see the real Africa in Walikale, in Masisi,” he says.

The rest of the group has come, we pile into the car. It is half-past three on the morning of my 32nd birthday when we reach the hotel. The nightclub next door is raucous; the music is loud, the street crowded with idling motos. “Be careful,” Stefano warns, as I pick my way through the crowd. The gate is locked and I wait three, four minutes, rattling the door to wake the askari. I’m about to start scaling the gate when he emerges, sleepy, shuffling his feet. The Italians drive off with a toot of the horn – arrivederla, amici! – and it’s with visions of Italian girls and gyrating Frenchmen filling my head that I drift into my 33rd year.