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.

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One response to “Hell in paradise; or, paradise in hell.

  1. Pingback: Kivu redux. | This Is Africa

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