The Moment Begins Now.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Day in the DRC.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo's greatest gift - and its inescapable curse - has always been its abundance of natural resources, estimated at around 17 trillion dollars. 

Our guidebook states "the city is starting to attract a small trickle of hardcore travellers." One part boredom, one part claustrophobia and one part insanity had led us to an impulsive decision to gather a crew for the weekend to explore the town on the edge of the DRC, Goma.

Joseph Mobutu, who dubbed himself (and get this) Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Waza Banga (the fearless warrior who will go from strength to strength leaving fire in his wake) took power in government in 1965 and created a new level of government during his time; a government that ruled by theft (theftocracy). In 1997, he left, and the under-reported Great War of Africa followed in his wake; 9 countries, 5 million dead. The Mai Mai, a militia group that believes holy water protects them from bullets, took the famous words uttered after the Jewish Holocaust ("never again") and twisted it into a disturbing Congolese translation of "till the next time."

"It's not that democratic, it's barely a republic, but it is... the Congo," said a close friend on the situation.

Before we left, we checked in with Fidele;  a kind, thoughtful hotel manager with an easy and contagious laugh about the situation across the border. He lived and went to school in Goma (you can speak your mind over there, said the soft spoken man) and was going three times a week trying to get his broken computer back. After receiving his blessing and taking his phone number, we crossed into no man's land.

The energy changed, as we applied for our visas on the other side of the border crossing. After paying $35.00 for the visa, I was hassled by a customs agent who wanted a bribe because I didn't bring my yellow fever vaccination with me. After an extended discussion in French where my friend translated, I settled on 22 dollars, a price I wish I should never have paid for entering. He shook my hand, and the money disappeared into his pants as he smoothly lifted his belt and simultaneously scratched the bushy moustache that resided under his crooked nose. His eyes watched me with cautious dislike the entire time.

A money changer materialized out of the crowd to offer us a 'fair' rate for our American notes. As more of a novelty than a necesity, I exchanged $15.00 USD and began to count the money he gave to me. Watching me carefully, the changer sighed and simply handed me the rest of the money. I finished counting and held the rest of my hands out. He reached into his pocket and handed me the 'forgotten' 1000 Francs and walked off, whistling. The money was fascinating, especially the 500 Franc note which displayed shirtless Congolese miners, using picks to dig into the earth, a large outline of a diamond overshadowing the workers in the background.

We began the walk into town along a dusty street littered with strewn trash, speeding cars and rampant street sellers gawking at us. Though the hot, equatorial sun was beating down on us, I felt a shiver up and down my spine. This was not a good place, and it resonated a deep warning within me to be on alert. Motor taxi's pulled up dangerous close, pushing us backwards until we screamed at them to stop.

The 2 kilometer walk into town was eerie, with the unfamiliar constant drone of UN planes whizzing through the sky, and large troop trucks filled to the brim with soldiers, dog-tags glittering in the hazy light. We made our way to the center 'square' of town, which was marked by a destroyed monument and concrete circle, complete with scattered open drainage ditches filled with trash and sewage. We found our recommended restaurant with the attractive 'no weapon' sign, ate and emerged again to find that the world had all changed.

Despite it being mid-afternoon, the sun felt as if it was gone, hiding behind clouds, giving the street an incredibly sinister vibe. One of the girls we were with was being eye-fondled by a local on a motorcycle and when she pulled behind me and told me what was happening,  I turned around to face him. He eyes burned with pure hatred as he mouthed the words, "Fuck you" then sped off on his bike. The mere experience left me shaking.

I live by certain rules while traveling. They have been learned through experience, from earthquake zones to robbings, dark alleys and unsavoury drunks from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. These rules have rescued me from dangerous and potentially deadly situations before. The cardinal rule? Follow your instinct. And my instinct was shaking it's wise head. No. No. No. I berated myself for putting ourselves in such unnecessary risk. What were we there for? What were we trying to prove by being there? There's nothing romantic or exciting about escaping to this country for a day. This country is in war. This country is dangerous. Any pretense that we would be safe had quickly left.  I no longer felt safe, and my body refused to relax until we began our trek again to the border.
As we neared the border, I saw an MSF (Doctors without Borders) truck rattling it's way into the town, white flag raised high with concerned members inside squinting as they stared ahead at what seemed like an invinsible threat. I stopped and watched, and contemplated my life. I've always wanted to work with this organization, in places like this... or so I thought. Five hours had left me with a dark, brooding feeling of insecurity, stress and fear. What, I thought, would 9 months make me feel? Would it claim my soul? With these rambling notions rolling in my mind, we backed our way across the border and felt instantly safe, familiar... home.

The cortisol, which was coursing steadily through my body began to slow down, and I at once, felt exhausted, and contemplative. Watching the now darkened Congo recede in the rear-view mirror,  I realized I needed a drink and I needed to re-think my future. I retreated from the Congo, thankfully safely with our friends in tow,  four hours after we had arrived, leaving the country with far more dark questions for my future than I had answers.


  1. Waaaa... consistently ominous tone throughout the story. Knowing you, and only having an image of your face with a smile on it, I kept waiting for the release of tension. But the conclusion brought only "more dark questions".

    Impressive writing Ravi.

    See you Hanoi?