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.
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.
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.