What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Dear Class,

024When I first decided to come to the Congo, it wasn’t the political unrest, black mambas or malaria-laden mosquitoes that worried me. The fighting in Goma (which is as far north as Nunavut is to Yonge street in Toronto) had died down to a near lullaby and the suspected Ebola case in Lubumbashi was exactly that—suspected, but not. I wasn’t worried about a month without peanut butter or having to resemble Pig Pen for all of July. My overriding concern was that I’d fall dangerously, irretrievably in love with the Congo.

There’s some magnetic force, like the smell of burgers dripping and spitting on the grill on a heavy summer night that sucks me in. And that powerful, invisible entity, made me genuinely worry that I would fall for the Congo and rupture the stitches that still left me attached to Canada.

But for all that I am enchanted by, there is also a mild irritation in living here. Like a t-shirt tag that picks and rubs you raw throughout the day. We all know what happens–exasperated, in a moment of agitation, the offending tag gets ripped off with brute force, taking all the critical threads with it. There are many things that I don’t agree with that are an integral part of the Congolese way. However, I don’t think life should be lived in a compound with walls taller than the one that was toppled in Berlin. The barbed wire coiled around the perimeter does not instil a cozy feeling like a white picket fence does. The armed guards with poker faces and rifles on the rooftops of the nearby governor’s family home also make me a bit prickly.

Guns are commonplace, as familiar as the bone-rack street dogs and young boys rubbing their bellies and begging for francs. But it’s not the guns that are feared by this population—it’s poisoning. The most popular way to murder someone in Lubumbashi is a gentle, surreptitious poisoning. Snake bites hardly rank at all on the fear meter. In fact, Chantal has told me that the solution is simple. If you are nabbed by a snake, “you just cut the limb.” I had to clarify her instructions because I’ve seen lots of cowboy movies where they do just that—they slice the guy and then suck the venom out of him. Whisky gets poured down his throat (and down the throat of the snake-bitten chap). What Chantal meant wasn’t like the cowboy movies at all, she meant that you cut the limb OFF. “If you are in the bush you can choose to die in seconds from the mamba, or you can cut off your hand, arm or foot.” Pity the guy who gets bit in other locations.

Again, the snakes don’t bother me. The Bradt guide advised wearing “stout shoes” to prevent such bites. I’m hoping my Nikes qualify as stout. Besides, who is a snake to judge footwear anyway? Unless they slither upon snakeskin boots in the sun-bleached grass, then they can throw judgement. I’ve warded off many dangers so far—even diarrhea, which I think is the greatest achievement for someone who is inclined to eat goat testicles and grasshoppers. C’mon, living in the Congo for a month? it’s the equivalent of licking a dozen Mexican toilet seats. Plus, I am generally covered in chimp piss and/or shit on a daily basis. Not to mention all the other flea and dander-toting animals that I share a house with. The only one I haven’t made intimate contact with is the surly guinea pig because she has the teeth of a shark lunges like an Olympic fencer whenever I drop carrots and radishes in her cage.

Goat testicles, panfried with garlic

Goat testicles, panfried with garlic

Canada is just so safe it’s shocking that any of us get a bruise or break a nail. The warnings are everywhere, when they should already be anticipated. Watch out! Your coffee might be hot! This bag is not a toy! Do not eat this! (Who was the loser who ate the silica gel in the shoebox in the first place?). I wonder how signage would help make the Congo safer? CAUTION: CHOLERA AND GIARDIA IN THIS SOUP! And along the ‘sidewalks’—Watch out: broken ankle terrain for the next 80 km! In the bathrooms: wash your hands because you just touched fecal matter on the doorknob! On menus: *This menu may or may not contain parasites on its surface that will make you shit your pants before you leave the restaurant.

More dangerous than ordering the catch of the day (because who knows what you might catch) would be the streets of Lubumbashi. They should be classified as really wide hiking trails for intrepid climbers. The potholes are as big as bathtubs. Dust can create blind patches that leave vehicles hurtling at each other head-on. The traffic lights are often red AND green simultaneously, but more often, not working at all. What North America would consider a single lane of traffic suddenly becomes a four-lane turning point. It’s like being in a colossal amusement park where everyone has their very own bumper car and toy horn. Beeeeeeeeeeep! Is there any consequence if we smash into each other? Let’s find out! BeepBeep.

North America is so starchy-white and sanitized. I love that. I plan to take a long hot bath in bleach when I return home and drink eight glasses of Listerine a day. In the evening, I’ll pass on the Chardonnay; give me a shot of lemon-scented sanitizer on the rocks.

One of the most ew-inducing sanitation stories happened two days ago. The one and only Lubumbashi vet made a home visit to examine Micah, the one-year-old chimp, who had a spiking fever. The vet arrived covered in dried blood from some haemorrhaging dog he had just performed surgery on. The blood was still on his hands as he was about to stick his fingers in Micah’s mouth. Chantal asked if he cared to “Lavez les mains” before he began. Honestly. And this is why I don’t eat finger foods after massaging all day, or here in the Congo. Now that I’m on the vet rant, I should finish. Without a stethoscope (because the vet doesn’t have one) he diagnosed “dry bronchitis” when Micah hadn’t coughed once. He didn’t even listen to her chest sounds. Of course, we demanded a second opinion and had a human doctor from S.O.S. International do his very first chimp check-up. At least he had a stethoscope and non-bloody hands. He diagnosed parasites which probably came from the one and only vet who doesn’t wash his hands after surgery.

Chantal is no longer surprised by this sort of jaw-dropping, icky behaviour. But there are things that are just plain wrong in the Congo, wrong as white pants after Labour Day. There is a hospital here with no running water. “Would you like gangrene with your stitches today?”

At La Brioche, half a dozen amputees routinely lean against the bakery wall with make-shift crutches and primitive hand-pedal powered wheelchairs. I ask Chantal if they are victims of landmine explosions or the civil war. She tells me that they probably had a minor injury or an infection, couldn’t afford the health care (as one has to buy everything during a hospital visit: food, sheets, parasites), and they developed gangrene and lost their leg. However, a hospital visit could have resulted in the same fate.

Living in a place where you are recommended to NOT go to the hospital is strange, no? All the ex-pats take off on the next flight to Johannesburg for any health concerns: a blister or otherwise. This trip has confirmed that hygiene is such a beautiful thing. But could it be achieved in the Congo? The dust here is constant, like tinnitus. People piss where they please, wherever the urge strikes. Unwashed hands that touched unwashed bums prepare breakfasts and lunches and dinners. Beer is poured in glasses washed in water that wouldn’t even be acceptable for a Canadian toilet. And then there’s the money—francs that have been tucked up into secret places for safekeeping. Garbage is strewn everywhere. When a bottle is empty, it’s dropped in that very spot. Plastic bags blow about like fallen leaves should, cans get crunched underfoot with free range chicken shit and condoms. Who needs a garbage can when you throw garbage anywhere?

There’s obviously no recycling here (I think the garbage can situation needs to be tackled first), which tempts me to return home with a backpack full of recyclables. It hurts me to throw plastic and glass into the garbage after twenty plus years of being an eco-hero. But, there is sunshine every day. If you want a 100% sunny day guarantee for your wedding: choose the Congo. As long as you don’t mind your wedding gown not being a whiter shade of pale.

078I love the African sun and sky. I want to bring it home because the sunsets make everything seem possible. They are a reliable feel-good moment at the end of the dusty day. At 6:03 the sun drops as fast as the apple on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve. I have never seen a more magnificent orange globe. It slips deep into the ground and the cloak of darkness falls in an instant. The Southern Cross appears with adjusted vision and all the stars twinkle like Joan Rivers’ veneers.

Africa definitely gets under my skin like the tumbo fly eggs that must be ironed out of clothes hung outside to dry. I laugh more often than not at the charms and spoils of the Congo, because it’s the secret to survival when your sense of familiarity and expectations go POOF! It begins at breakfast as I open the “Long Life Milk” (which is a bit frightening—should milk last as long as Twinkies on the shelf?), and spread honey on the short life bread. One day it’s fresh and pillowy, the next day? Croutons. Molar-cracking slices.

But still, I have this insatiable appetite for all things Africa. I have learned that when you order a burger and fries—it will take a minimum of two hours. And the fries will arrive at the very end of those two hours as a dessert. This is why the beers are 750ml, to keep you patient and preoccupied. If you’re not a patient personality, the Congo will leave you in a permanent state of panic attack. The electricity is as reliable as a ’74 VW Westfalia. I have become accustomed to living in a house with no electricity, which also means no running water. It doesn’t even phase me when I am told that the power has been out for three days. I have observed 986 Earth Hours in Lubumbashi. The internet connection is on and off as often as Brad and Angelina supposedly are. But these little nuisances are compensated for in those blazing sunsets that make me bleed stories of African days that have passed me by.

067The most dangerous ailment that I will suffer after my time spent in Africa will be incurable emotional arthritis. Periodic aches and pain, general restlessness and insomniac nights that can all be traced to my month in the Congo. And my peacefully restorative days in Uganda and Kenya. Far worse than malaria, or a mamba bite from not wearing stout shoes is emotional arthritis caused by a sutured connection to a place (and 23 darling chimps)so many oceans away. But I can massage that arthritis with memories, and I have so many of them. My mind is racing faster now, covering all the days of this month.

I love Africa a little more for fulfilling that pacing place in my mind in a way that will be difficult to match. Like a mistress, she will haunt me in my dreams and leave her scent on my skin to keep me under her intoxicating spell.

I am leaving Thursday, but I am taking the Congo with me.

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “What I Did On My Summer Vacation

  1. Noelle

    Jules……..you know I love your writing. You scare the shit out of me, yet make me laugh at the same time. Thanks for bringing a smile to my face on a somewhat downer of a day. You are to be admired for more reasons than one. As much as I love Africa and dream about going, the more I read your stories the more I think….yeah, I’ll stick with my…Animal Kingdom. You’re brave and you do belong to Africa. Take care!!!

  2. Wendy

    Awww .. that is so sad. But wonderful to love the place so much. I’m sure you will be sorting through your feelings for a good many months to come. And thinking of the heat etc. all winter long.

  3. connie

    jules, you still remain the bravest person I know. Your passion for so many aspects of Africa will always be a part of who you are and I am sure you will find a way to return again and continue to see the good where so many of us who have always led more sheltered, softer lives don’t dare to set a foot but will remain curious and see it through National Geographic’s eyes or something similar.
    Thank you again for sharing the good, the bad, and the downright ugly qualities of what will always be to me, a truly grand and mysterious continent! I loved the ways you have shared your observations and experiences through your wonderful writing. Thank you for going where I cannot and sharing all that you have. Take good care and have a safe trip.

  4. Janice Reynodls

    Hey Jules!!

    What beautiful memories you must have of the Congo. You’re excellent writing and reminisce bring a tear to the eye. I miss your face at Reach Harbour but think of you everytime I go to the washroom there…lol. But really I do! I wish I had your courage to take such a life changing adventure. I admire you. Be safe and hope to see you sometime soon.


  5. SAN

    Can’t wait to get together upon your return “home”.

  6. Linda L

    Hi Jules,
    You romance us…have you ever been sentenced to our hospitals facing death? I have and happen to know it’s not as perfect as you think. We have some real issues here too…all be it not necessarily as awful as you describe the circumstances there…still when you’re facing death and are not given the protection from contamination you are told you need, nor able to use the added benefits your employer supplies (because it just simply isn’t available, i.e. a private room). You realize it isn’t quite as good as it should be. My current writing assignment is about my experience with toxic shock and includes both a wrong drug dose and being kept in a room exposed to further problematic disease that would kill me (so said the nurse /patient transferred out earlier than I perhaps because of her knowledge/connections, assuring me that there was no way they would keep in the same room: they did). And there is more so before you glorify our system too much you might want to take a walk through it. Certainly we have a health system superior to Africa’s but not quite as perfect as you think.
    Your love and struggles with what is acceptable there comes across and is appreciated. Good on you for the courage to attempt what would be impossible to most of us spoiled North Americans. I do appreciate how very lucky we are here…but there is always room for improvement.

  7. Yvette

    This makes me want to go but at the same time makes me scared to go. I admire your adventurous ways and I hope one day I can get the guts to do what you’ve done.

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