Tag Archives: guest house tourist

One for the road.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 21 – April 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

When monkeys attack!

Self-portrait, with plastic floral arrangement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One for the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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The fine art of looking fabulous.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 20 – April 9

Almost perfect: the facilities at the Guest House Tourist

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

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

Breakfast at the Guest House Tourist

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

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

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

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

A new building being built

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

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

Site of future monument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilbert, second from right, with family and friends

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

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

Accept no substitutes: the Guest House Tourist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here there are many thieves.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 19 – April 8

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

An old gunboat at the port

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

A passenger ferry chugs into port

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

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

Alexis, aboard the Miss Rafiki

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

Leaving Goma

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

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

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

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

Approaching Bukavu

The unlovely port

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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