Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa

my life in Lumbumbashi, Congo working at a chimp sanctuary

Coffee & Chimps

I can’t wake up. My down duvet and the darkness are holding me hostage. I set my alarm forward to what I hope is 15 more minutes and not 15 hours. I’ll soon find out.  The subway rumbles by, as it does. Behind my house the incessant jackhammering in the underground parking garage is already full tilt. The upstairs tenant is busy doing her usual morning laps on the hardwood in army boots.

I pull on a hoodie, do a visual weather check and in one swoop turn on my laptop, the gas fireplace and the left stove burner for the kettle. Scooping towers of coffee grounds into my Bodum I start thinking about how different mornings were in the Congo. Coffee was not a leisurely event with a daily paper spread out before me. In the Congo, provided there was electricity, coffee happened quickly as there were 23 chimpanzees patiently waiting at the sanctuary for hot milk. My alarm routinely sounded at 5 am, not 9:30 am as my Toronto life permits.

I felt like a wayward Starbucks barista in Africa. Dozens of one litre plastic bottles dominated the space beside the sink in the crowded prep kitchen. The six youngest chimps had their own personal bottles with pacifier tops as they were still bottle fed. I never imagined that I’d be making breakfast for chimps. However, pre-sunrise and bleary-eyed, I was stationed in the kitchen, boiling water, carefully measuring honey, propolis, vitamins and powdered milk into a narrow funnel.

This was serious business. Chimps are as particular as we are; if the milk was too hot or too cold, they pushed it away in disgust. Not enough honey or too much propolis and they balked. Tall, full-fat, no-whip, extra honey or else! The adults accepted the warm milk poured into tin cups with handles in a semi-mannerly way. The shrill feeding time pant-hoots and excited displays were deafening.

As I plunge the French press and pour my first cup I stand in two worlds, as I often do. I’m drinking coffee in downtown Toronto, but am transported back to the dust and din of the Congo. All I have to do is look at the enlarged photos hanging on the wall in my kitchen. I step into a sunrise in Masai Mara and stare into the eyes of two curious Congolese children.

I wait for my bagel to toast with crossed arms. I miss waking Micah, the youngest chimp. She stayed with us at the house near the sanctuary because the July nights were too cold, and she was already suffering from bronchitis. After the milk bottles had been filled, I’d wake her (rousing her earlier was too chaotic—imagine a four-armed child on the loose!).

Micah slept in a large dog-type carrier, swathed in blankets, in a tiny t-shirt to keep her core warm. She would gently coo and begin to blink at the light as I folded the blankets back that kept the carrier dark. As I unlocked the carrier door, she instantly reached out for my neck as though it were a tree trunk and gripped me tightly. Her body would be so warm from sleep. Her diaper would be soggy, but, in that moment, she could do no wrong. She’d yawn so innocently and examine me, sometimes reaching her fingers to my mouth to trace my teeth.

Minutes later she would be on a tear. Changing her diaper would turn into a chase scene. She’d have the powdered milk container popped open. She’d be squeezing honey from the bottle when I turned my back. The cat would be hiding behind the curtains avoiding unexpected tail yanks. Micah would appear with matches in her mouth. A bar of soap.  My lip balm. Red paint—from where? I never found out.

I pour more coffee and add too much cream. The chimps would send it back. Micah would have her fingers in my mug already, threatening to tip the contents, her eyes hovering just above my counter, scanning.  She would love my barstools—four of them to swing between. In no time she’d find my porcupine quills and beluga bone. My cowhide rug would have tiny chimp teeth marks at its edge. The wine bottles tucked in the recycling bin would be out and rolling around after she sipped the last sips.

Grabbing the peanut butter from the middle drawer I see all the things Micah would ransack in less than a minute. Spaghetti noodles, oatmeal, popcorn, Nutella. She was a sucker for sweets and would be in the fridge searching for cordial or Coke.  Her guilty face and temporary disappearance always gave her away.

Even though it’s louder here in Toronto, it’s somehow quieter. I should be getting ready for work but somehow find myself scrolling through my Congo photos instead.  It’s a side effect of sharing breakfast with chimps.

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

What On Earth Are We Doing?

An "eco-tourism lodge attraction" in the Congo

My original intention was to Google the story about the 32 monkeys that died when a Nevada lab overheated. Charles River Laboratories is one of 26 registered US  importers of primates (others on the list include zoos, universities and private labs). An article on indicated that 27, 388 primates were imported into the US in 2008, with an average of 25,000 primates being imported in the last four years. In 2008, Charles River housed over 10,000 primates at their facility alone.

Ikia's arrival at the Lubumbashi airport

The company’s history traces back to the 1940s when veterinarian  Dr. Henry L. Foster bought a Maryland rat farm for breeding purposes. Later, on a trapping expedition in the Himalayas, Foster returned to the states with several Rhesus monkeys to create a quick-breeding stock of 800. The monkeys were bred on two Florida islands where workers captured 400-500 a year to be sold to labs worldwide.

When I keyed “monkey” into the search engine, “monkeys for sale” immediately appeared in the drop-down list. Curious and appalled, I clicked on it. Monkeys for sale in Canada? I clicked through the pages and found a Japanese Snow monkey for $6,500, posted by Northern Exotics near Sudbury, Ontario. “This is a legit sale and not a scam as so often seen with monkeys.” There was also a baby female Snow monkey for $3,500, OBO.

The Northern Exotics site also boasted Jamaican Fruit bats, armadillos, sugar gliders and Fennec foxes.  In Montreal, Quebec, Pastor Emmanuel and his wife Cindy have an advert that says they “are giving out cute baby marmosets for adoption to any Christian, pet loving and caring family.” The babies are house-raised, diaper and leash trained, wear clothes and like to watch TV.

The primatestore. com had a Christmas special on infant black-handed spider monkeys—only $9,000 each. Tentatively, I keyed in “Chimps for sale.” I was stunned. There were several listings for chimps in Texas and Ohio.  One of the links led me to a 2008 SPCA report on the rescue of Henry, a 23-year-old chimp who was found at an emaciated 60 pounds (half the body weight of a healthy chimp) in a cage so small that it caused him severe spinal deformities. The cage was littered with empty soda cans and cigarette butts.

On the site PRLog Free Press Release I came across this headline: “We Sale Big Monkeys, Chimpanzees, Orang tuans, Gorillas.” They advertised worldwide delivery in two to three working days to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Here’s a cut and paste of the ad at :

PR Log (Press Release)Mar 08, 2010 – You need a monkey babies or old ?  a chimpanzee, orang utans, gorillas, big cats, panter  please call us tehn we can get it done within 2 working days deliver to your home  or you can pick it up payment upon receival   we can also trains this animals for you  in additional 6 weeks  time.

I remember the day Chantal, Sevrine and I were driving out to a quarry for a picnic (in the Congo). We saw a sinewy Congolese boy in his early teens at the roadside. As our vehicle approached he lifted a dik dik in the air (a dik dik is a small, antelope-like animal). He began shouting at us as we slowed down. The dik dik was for sale. I hadn’t even seen a dik dik in the wild the entire month I was there, and was saddened to see a young one for sale that would most likely be bought as a pet by an expat, or slaughtered.

The image of the dik dik still haunts me, as does the arrival of Ikia, the chimp who was flown to the J.A.C.K. chimp sanctuary where I volunteered in Lubumbashi. She arrived dehydrated and limp-bodied, and died less than 12 hours later in the arms of Augustin. She was bought for $120 US on the roadside of Kalemie in a burlap sack bound with twigs.

Ikia, sold for $120 in Kalemie, Congo

Writing this post, I feel the dull pulse of a headache. It’s one that stems from frustration, and when I find another ad for a chimp for sale in Yellowknife, posted December 28th, I am exasperated. For $700, “King,” an eight-month-old chimp comes with a complete instruction book and other toys and accessories.

I need Jane Goodall on speed dial. Chimps and monkeys are not intended as pets. We can all easily recall the disturbing images of Charla Nash who was attacked by her friend’s chimp in Stamford, Connecticut, can’t we? The chimp was eventually shot by police due to his aggression. Nash is suing her friend, Sandra Herold, for $50 million saying she “was negligent and reckless for lacking the ability to control a wild animal with violent propensities.”

Travis, Herold’s chimp, had lived with her for 14 years. He had appeared in several TV commercials and a television pilot, as well as promotional events for Herold’s towing business. Nash is left blind, wearing a veil so she doesn’t scare people with her unsightly appearance.

I returned to the article on the Nevada research monkeys that were killed by human error. The company was charged just last year when a monkey was scalded to death after it was accidentally sent through an automatic cage washer.

Ikia at the J.A.C.K. sanctuary

Andrew Westoll, author of The Riverbones had posted the original article on his Facebook profile page. Westoll, a former biologist and primatologist who decided to focus on his dynamic writing talent is to publish Thirteen Chimpanzees in the spring of 2011. The thirteen chimps he writes about have spent decades in US biomedical research labs and have now found a safe haven at the Fauna Foundation in Quebec. The chimps share the farm with over a hundred other rehabilitating animals rescued from the entertainment industry, research labs or agriculture. Fauna is their forever home. As the home page for the Foundation promises, the animals are provided with companionship and enrichment, “free from the fear and hardships they have known.”

I clicked on the chimp In Remembrance page, knowing that I would be inconsolable. I read about Donna Rae, the chimp who came from the Animal Kingdom Talent Service. She learned to ride a bike and how to play the guitar. In her last five years at a lab, she was used in HIV studies that involved lymph node and bone marrow biopsies. Following one intervention, she actually went into shock from the pain. The obituary reads: “constantly mutilating herself, Donna always looked as though she had given up all hope.”

I read about Pablo who chewed off one of his fingers, clearly the direct result of being darted over 220 times, enduring 30 biopsies and being injected with 10,000 times the lethal dose of HIV.

In 1959, Annie was stolen from her family in Africa. She became part of the circus before spending 21 years in the lab as a breeder. Billy was often found having panic attacks so violent that he would be left convulsing. His teeth had been knocked out by a crow bar. After 15 years in the entertainment industry, he was knocked out 289 times for 40 liver and lymph node biopsies. He eventually chewed off  his own thumbs. Jean was inoculated with HIV after several cervical biopsies. After a nervous breakdown she removed all of her fingernails. Her aggressive seizures led to “floating hand and foot,” a condition that led her to attack her own feet and hands, as though they were not her own.

Fifteen years ago I wrote a feature for Cockroach magazine, a publication of the Environmental Youth Alliance, where I worked in Vancouver, BC. It was an expose of the bear bile and bear part trade industry in China. There are currently 7,000 bears on bear bile farms in China, caged and exploited for their bile which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. The bears have surgically implanted tubes in their gall bladders and are “milked” twice a day. Once they stop producing bile (between five and ten years of age), the bears are left to die of starvation or illness, or killed so the farm can sell their paws ($250 each). In the15 years since I wrote that article, the farms have grown in size and production.

In the documentary The Cove I watched the waters of Taiji, Japan turn scarlet red with the slaughter of dolphins. Over 20,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed every year, driven to shore by the fishing boats where they are harpooned. Due to suffocating media pressure and response to the documentary, Taiji actually called for a temporary ban on killing bottlenose dolphins.

Exposure brings education, hope and change.

The news seems to be littered with abominable stories of animal abuse lately. Like the 11 rare Siberian tigers who died at a zoo in Beijing. There is speculation that zoos in China may be deliberately breeding more animals than they can afford, selling the carcasses to the black market for use in traditional medicines and liquor. An article in the Hamilton Spectator reported the tigers starved to death, having been fed nothing but chicken bones. Since, there have been reports of tiger farms steeping the bones of deceased tigers in liquor which is then sold to visitors.

There are 300 Siberian tigers left in the wild, 50 in China. Five thousand more live in captivity on farms and wildlife parks across China.

I could go on.

However, there is hope. Jane Goodall says so. She is lecturing in Toronto next week, celebrating the 50th anniversary of her plight to bring the story of her chimps in Gombe, Tanzania to the world. Her latest book, Hope For Animals and Their World, How Endangered Species are Being Rescued From the Brink (co-authored with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson) spotlights the enormous efforts of several individuals and field biologists who have truly saved several species from the brink. Her message is uplifting, and instils motivation. She dedicates the book to “the memory of Martha, the last passenger pigeon—and to the last Miss Waldron’s colobus monkey and the last Yangtze River dolphin. As we think of their lonely end, may we be inspired to work harder to prevent others suffering a similar fate.”

Please watch The Cove. Read about the Flora Foundation. Become a fan of Andrew Westoll’s Thirteen Chimpanzees on Facebook.. Buy tickets to see empowering speakers like Jane, a woman who has given her life to a crusade that should remind us all of the fragility and interconnectedness we share with animals on this Earth.

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.” –Barbara Kingsolver

Andrew Westoll’s site:

Jane Goodall’s Hope For the Animals:

More on the bear trade industry:

The Cove

Fox News article on Nevada research monkeys:

Christian marmosets for sale:

Northern Exotics:

The Fauna Foundation:

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar, Things with Fur and Feathers | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


Jane and Jules, chimp lovers

On the weekend, two friends remarked on how brave I was to go to the Congo. Brave? I was blinded by a passion that didn’t even allow me to consider any ill-fated consequences. I had an opportunity to work with chimpanzees—after hearing that, my mind was already in fast-forward, mentally packing my bag and visualizing my Jane Goodall moment.

When I decided to go to Costa Rica and volunteer for three months at age 20, I was also commended on my bravery. Again, it was a selfish indulgence. Live in a jungle hut and pick bananas off the trees for breakfast? What could possibly go wrong in the jungle? Where do I sign up?

I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions over the years. Again, I blame it on the blinding passion. Like the time I hitchhiked to Clayoquot Sound, BC, to stand on a logging road blocking the path of the trucks ready to level another stand of trees.

My ‘bravery’ can also be blamed for my enthusiasm to have a pint at the most bombed-out bar in all of Europe. Who wouldn’t want to do that? As I sat in the pub across from the Opera House in Belfast, Ireland, I was sure that after 33 bombings, surely a 34th couldn’t happen. Not while I was there. Not on my watch.

Scrappy, the dog who dodged a bullet

In Uganda I stood strong (‘bravely’) as Debby and I had a gun pointed in our direction by a Ugandan Wildlife Authority guard. The guard was ready to shoot Scrappy, one of the dogs from the Jane Goodall office. When Debby remarked on the guard’s ignorance in shooting a dog in front of a young child, the barrel of the gun was suddenly a little too close for comfort. But shoot Scrappy? The guard would definitely have to shoot Debby and I first.

But still, it was ‘bravery’ that made me walk (at incredibly high speeds) away from the corrupt police who wanted to confiscate my camera in Entebbe.  They had guns too (sawed-off shotguns in fact), ready to be used if necessary—however, I could barely hear their threats over the THUMPTHUMPTHUMP of my heart. Was it worth being shot in the back over a stupid camera? On that day, yes. I had a really nice sunset shot from Anderita Beach and a cool picture of a Marabou stork in a dumpster.

Steph commented that I was brave to stay three nights in Nairobi by myself after missing my flight to the Congo. To me, there was no other option. I had heard all the horror stories already—the missionary couple who were attacked with machetes, the brutal carjackings and the bombing of the American Embassy. These highlights were pointed out on the Nairobi tour with my hired driver.

When I think back to my time in Costa Rica, it was clear and present danger on a daily basis. Our group was situated near the Panama border and we passed by drug-runners with flour sacs full of marijuana on a daily basis. We avoided eye contact and both went on our merry, separate ways. Except the drug-runners had AK-47’s slung over their shoulders and machetes on their hip. I had a Swiss Army knife that I couldn’t open at the best of times.

Last week when I told my mother that I had booked a trip to Venezuela there was a gasp. Naturally she was nervous that I was taking off on another four month sojourn. When I told her it was just for a week, she resumed breathing and said, “Well, don’t get yourself kidnapped down there because they want gazillions of dollars in ransom.” Nice.

And this is when I had the flashback of the drug-runners and ‘missing persons’ in the jungle. Locals often disappeared and the mighty Water Tiger that lived in the Cuen River was blamed. I’d put my poker chips on the dudes with the flour sacs.

And it all led to this– the night in the jungle that I didn’t feel very brave at all. I was imagining my story as a Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life feature. Mostly I hoped I would live to tell the story to someone, anybody.

Jungle Jules, circa age 20

Our volunteer group of 12 lived in a hut with a tree bark floor and palm frond roof. There were no walls. Twelve of us lived in a space the size of a North American living room, with mosquito nets strung about the ‘ceiling’ like a massive spider web. Wild boars lived under the hut and made horrific screaming sounds in the night that sounded like women being murdered.

We had been together since early December, and all threads of patience had been completely frayed. In one exasperated moment, I hid Alex’s drumsticks in the palm fronds because I was visualizing a homicide due to his incessant drumming. Every Sunday we had a meeting to discuss our feelings which basically evolved into a Lord of the Flies-esque scenario. We could barely tolerate each other anymore with such close quarters, paralyzing body odour, Chihuahua-sized mosquitoes and drumming.

Our group was motley—with reps from Costa Rica, Canada and Australia. We had already split into Survivor-type alliances (and this was way before Mark Burnett created the show that would hook millions of viewers all these seasons later). Rachel from Prince Edward Island was my go-to girl, and we often shared our hidden stashes of Oreos, bathtub warm beer and just-discovered orange trees with each other.

But on January 20th? I was looking out for number one.

My loft condo in Alto Cuen, Costa Rica

The Cabecar chief of Alto Cuen had generously offered his own hut to us for the duration of our stay. He also pointed out an abandoned hut a 10 minute walk into the rainforest that we could also use. We decided that one hut would be for cooking and sleeping, and the satellite hut would be a place for reading, writing and siestas. Library voices only. It was a perfect retreat. On the days when the rain pounded down and bounced off the ground, a book, a sleeping bag and some secret chocolate balanced the world.

We were a gruelling 12 km hike from the closest village. The trip involved six tricky river crossings (one of our group members nearly drowned on one occasion when we hiked in with horses. Her backpack caught on the rope that we were using to cross the rapids when one of the horses was startled and moved downstream. Alice was trapped in the current with the weight of the pack on her. But that’s another story). Our trips into ‘town’ were planned for every third week to pickup canned goods, flour, mail and chocolate.

On that January day in 1996, I told Alice I was going to the satellite hut (the “Summer House” as we began to refer to it), with a crappy Costa Rican blueberry chocolate bar stuffed in my bra. I had received some mail from home and was eager to tear into the letters.

The path to the Summer House was like a page out of a fairy tale. Brilliant orchids, butterflies bobbing about in huge clouds of bright yellow and crimson wings, verdant vines snaking up trees, processions of carpenter ants marching along, toucans crash-landing into the palms—the awe of living in a virgin rainforest never escaped me.

I ate my chocolate bar in painfully small rations. Our diet consisted of rice and black beans, oily mackerel, glue-like oatmeal, yucca (which when mashed had the consistency of Vaseline), plantain and bananas. I read my mail, twice probably, licked the chocolate bar foil clean and had a cat nap.

I slept longer than anticipated and awoke with a start at 5:55 pm. I quickly slipped on my rubber boots and turned on my Petzl head lamp and headed off to the main hut. Living on the equator and in a valley, it was completely dark at 6:05. There was no dusk, just day and a very dark night.

(Direct journal entry follows, recounted with a lot of swearing after the ‘event’)

I should have changed the batteries in my Petzl. Oh well, I continued on. And on.  And on. Hmmm. Didn’t recall it taking so long to get to the other hut. Hmmm. No orange tape on the tree to signal the turn in the path. Hmmm. Where the FUCK was the path?

I was totally fucking lost. Self-talk: Don’t panic. Going to die, but don’t panic. The roots and vines were closing in on me.  I turned off my flashlight to preserve batteries while I contemplated my life so far.

–More cursing—

I decided to yell.


Long pause.

A million deafening crickets. No voices. I was listening so hard I was hallucinating voices.

“PHIL? ANDREA? I’m lost in the woods!”

My voice was getting shakier. My legs? Could I feel them? My heart threatening to have an attack. I had a sudden revelation. Not only was I lost in the woods,  I was lost in the JUNGLE. In Costa Rica! In an indigenous village! I was hollering in English and they speak Cabecar and a little Spanish. I was fucked. Think Spanish. Think Spanish. Una cervesa. El gato es en la bano (The cat is in the bathroom—I knew that phrase from Spanish class would come in handy!).

DESCULPE!” That was it! Help! I remembered how to say ‘help’ in Spanish. I begin yelling desculpe. I developed an instant sore throat from yelling. (*I later learn when recounting my story to the group that ‘desculpe’ means ‘excuse me’ not ‘help me. So, I was in the middle of the $&%* jungle yelling “EXCUSE ME!”)

 I looked at my watch. 6:17. Everyone was having dinner, clearly not missing me.

The Bosque

I shouted some more, not willing to take any more time to think of the complete scariness of my predicament. I was so far from the hut that NO ONE could hear me? Then I remembered the Spanish word for forest—‘bosque.’ I holler “El Lost-ay in the bosque!”

Long pause.

They always say to hug a tree and stay in the same spot when you are lost (THEY were obviously not lost in the jungle in short sleeves with malaria-laden mozzies looking for bare skin landing strips).  Blah, blah, blah.  I convince myself that I can find my way back to the path.  Experiencing extreme denial of not being lost, I walk for a few more minutes. I thought I was lost before? Now I was reallllly lost. In the exact middle of fuck-all Costa Rica. Or Panama for all I knew.

 A million eyes were watching me. The whistle that they put on the Suggested Items to Pack list would have come in handy at this precise time.

I went back to yelling desculpe. I yell desculpe until I am hoarse—finally I hear a sound in response. Kind of an “AYE.” I respond with my urgent desculpe and AQUI! (here), hoping I’m not attracting a randy drug runner with gold teeth.

“Excuse me here! I love squash. Do you like green carpet?” Who knows what I was yelling. The voice grew closer. I turned on my headlamp (that I turned off, figuring I might be spending my night in the jungle. Thought I might want some battery power for when the jaguars attacked me). I started walking towards the voice. Did I say walking towards the voice? I was running. Totally bushwhacking. “AQUI! AQUI!”

The voice belonged to a Cabecar man and a woman with a baby in a papoose. I began explaining my Lost-ay in the Bosque story in caveman Spanglish.

I’d been found, but was at a loss. Where did I belong? I pulled a pen and a letter from my pack and began to draw the village church. “Jesu Christo?” I asked. I printed Reto Juvenil (Youth Challenge, the name of the group I was with). No response, they probably couldn’t read. I drew the soccer field. “Octavio?” We’d been working with Octavio, one of the prominent community members on the construction site.

No se.” (I don’t know).

The woman with the papoose took my letter and walked away. The man followed. (I was definitely not sticking around the jungle by myself!) I followed them, stepping on their heels in fact. “Octavio’s casa aqui?” (Octavio’s house here?). There was a grunt response. I was never good at small talk, but kept trying. “El bosque es mucho neigre a la noche.” (The forest is very black at night). No grunt. Nothing. We walked quietly and quickly in the dark.

We walked and walked (15-20 minutes) into a jungle-y dead end. Excellent, now we were all lost-ay. But I heard voices. We were approaching a hut with glowing lanterns. MY HOUSE!! I could see Phil and Tomas by the fire in the kitchen. “WITABADA!” (‘thank you’ in Cabecar). I said this 10 times and shook the hands of my rescuers a little too firmly (Cabecar handshakes are a mere brushing of the palms).

I can’t even remember what my knight in shining armour looked like. The whole hour of lost-ness was such a frantic blur.

I returned to the hut and there were no excited faces or eager embraces. They hadn’t missed me at all. While I was having the most terrifying moment of my life, a near-death experience if you will, my jungle pals were playing gin rummy, drumming and eating my share of the rice and beans. They figured I was sleeping. They didn’t hear my desperate calls for help. I must have been in Panama for sure–all because I didn’t want to share my chocolate bar and wanted a bit of quiet time and personal space. I almost had all the personal space I wanted!

The following day this quote appears in my journal:

Security is mostly a superstition

It does not exist in nature,

Nor do the children of men as a whole experience it

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run

Than outright exposure

Life is either a daring adventure

Or nothing

To keep our faces towards change and behave like free spirits

In the presence of fate

Is strength undefeatable.

–Helen Keller (1940)

Limon Naval Base, Costa Rica

On February 17th, 1996, our group was evacuated from the jungle by local military and flown to a naval base in Limon. The militia were doing emergency food supply drop-offs in the Astrella Valley due to major flooding of the Cuen River when they discovered us in Alto Cuen. The suspension bridge had been washed out and we had lost radio contact weeks ago.


Let’s just say I’ve had a few experiences that have put my life in an altered perspective. It’s a daring adventure—or nothing. I’m with Helen on this one.

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

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

Lessons in Dying

ikia in bagIt was to be a day of celebration, not a morning of angry tears and bitter rage directed at the ignorance of mankind.

I have always sympathized with Dian Fossey and her misinterpreted passion, I understood how her love for the mountain gorillas ran so deep and fast that strangling poachers bare-handed seemed  like the only viable solution to her. I’d like to stop the beating heart and breathing lungs of the guy who decided to rob Ikia of her life in the wild just to make a quick buck.

Three weeks ago, Julius, a geologist in Kalemie, was approached at his home a chimp trafficker, and the proposal wasn’t out of the ordinary. As a wealthy Congolese mining survey freelancer who frequently entertains expats and foreign nationals, Julius has been targeted as an individual who can afford exotic pets—and would have connections to others who would be interested in similar transactions. Exotic pet traffickers routinely come to his compound with African grey parrots, crocodiles, monkeys, marabou storks, and as of late, three baby chimpanzees.

When Julius saw the grave condition that Ikia was in, he felt there was no other choice but to save the chimp from the greedy hands of the trafficker who had her tucked away in a burlap sack bound with twigs. She was bought for $120US after Julius refused the asking price of $200.

Ikia’s decline was immediate. Julius provided her with shelter in his courtyard, and the young chimp was immediately hostile and aggressive. Attempts at feeding her were in vain—she refused milk and would only eat small amounts of papaya. Julius contacted the Jane Goodall Institute (no response) and Chimfunshi in Zambia (also no response) for advice. The husband of a colleague of Chantal’s who was familiar with her work as co-director of J.A.C.K. in Lubumbashi, cemented a connection between Julius and Chantal. Urgent phone calls and desperate emails ping-ponged between the two as Ikia’s health became critical.

Chantal immediately coordinated a meeting with the Minister of the Environment and an inspector from the Institute for Hunting and Conservation and Nature (notice how it’s the Institute of Hunting before other concerns like Conservation and Nature?) to obtain permission for the seizure and relocation of Ikia to the J.A.C.K. refuge where she could receive appropriate care and veterinary attention (from the one and only vet in Lubumbashi).

The Minister of the Environment was unavailable, but represented by a boozy stand-in, and the IHCN inspector proved to be shadier than a tree, working for financial motives more than animal welfare. The whiff of corruption was immediately evident as both men were asking for money to expedite the process and maintain their interest.

Ikia's arrival at the Lubumbashi airport

Ikia's arrival at the Lubumbashi airport

Kalemie is a two and a half hour flight from Lubumbashi. Due to Ikia’s deplorable condition, immediate decisions were necessary to ensure her survival. The documents that were to be signed by the officials on a Friday afternoon were somehow pushed to Monday in favour of whiskey, despite the urgent request for permission to fly Ikia to Lubumbashi that Saturday. On Monday, Chantal was to hear from the Minister by day’s end, but again, there was a delay in any formal action. When she was finally invited to the “office” of the Minister to receive the required documents, she was offered a seat (a plastic lawn chair) in a windowless office with only a table and one other lawn chair.  The Minister’s stand-in had no paper and asked Chantal to borrow a pen—which confirmed the lack of professionalism and governmental resources from the beginning.

Chantal phoned Julius to confirm that the permission had been granted, a pilot had been contacted and the expense of the flight was going to be waived. Except, on that Tuesday, only Julius got on the plane in Kalemie– there wasn’t room in the cargo area of the plane for Ikia. Julius decided to fly to Lubumbashi to assist the refuge with negotiations and his colleague, Patrick, would fly with Ikia the following day.

The refuge staff anxiously prepared the quarantine cage and the vet was contacted. As we paced, waiting for the phone call indicating that Ikia was on the plane, Julius informed us of different news– the flight from Kalemie was cancelled, but Ikia would arrive the next day. On Wednesday the flight was delayed for hours.  When we received the green light that Ikia was on the flight, we headed to the airport with the Minister’s useless sidekick and the seedy, glassy-eyed inspector. Halfway out of the city the sidekick realized he didn’t have the documents to present to the airport officials. We turned around. Then he decided he wanted to take his own vehicle—and asked Chantal for $10 to cover the petrol. 

In separate vehicles we rushed to the airport, exasperated at the behaviour of the ministry. The officials continued to ask Julius for more money. The airport officials in Kalemie demanded $100 US to put Ikia on the plane. The Lubumbashi  airport police stopped us at the gate and said we could only take one vehicle beyond the entrance. After removing the crate for transferring Ikia to the official’s car, he couldn’t unlock the back door of his Jeep, so we reloaded ours, and both cars were granted permission to proceed—with a bribe payment and a crooked smile.

The police officer wore a dusty uniform hat and a sweatshirt that my grandmother would have loved (it might have belonged to her at one point). The sweatshirt had LET IT SNOW written in big, sparkly letters and the snowflakes were carefully sewn-on sequins. The cardinals were also sparkly and of red glitter. I thought of the intense fear locals and the world have for the Congolese police. How could anyone be afraid of an officer wearing a nubby Grandma sweatshirt, even with a rifle slung over his shoulder?

The plane was landing as we made our way through the gate, the LET IT SNOW officer smiling like a fool with extra money in his pocket. Ikia had no idea of the life that was about to unfold for her, but already, the days had been too long. The daily setbacks in the process we tried to hurry would eventually determine her fate.

We don’t know how many days she spent in a burlap bag on the back of a bumpy truck from the mountains. We’ll never know how many chimps were killed in order for the trafficker to get his hands on Ikia. The chimp troop would have defended her and perished in a bloody battle to save their own from the trafficker.

Julius tells us the traffickers are infiltrating the Kalemie area from Tanzania–convincing local Bantus and a pygmy tribe that they can find a reliable income for their families by getting involved in the exotic pet trade.

Historically, the Bantus and Kalemie population have never eaten chimpanzee, but the ever-growing militia numbers in the area do, presenting another threat to the two chimp colonies nearby. No one knows the number of chimps living in this area—a survey has never been done. National Geographic biologists were in the region earlier this year, but their focus was on the snake and frog population.

For the chimps of Kalemie, habitat destruction is pushing them closer to local communities who are torching large stands of forest for charcoal (a major fuel source for locals for cooking) and farmland. Gold mining surveys are presently being carried out which could also upset the delicate ecosystem and range of the chimps in future years as mining exploits are carried out.

Many fingers of blame can be pointed in every direction. To the minister officials with questionable morals, to the inspectors with equally dark motives, to an uneducated population who have found exotic animal trafficking provides a lucrative income. There are no schools in a 120 km radius of Kalemie—the pygmy tribe still lives by nomadic principles, their quiet existence suddenly interrupted by outsiders who have found a valuable resource in their forests. The Tanzanian traders can be blamed too–for fulfilling a demand from Saudi Arabia, to supply wealthy oil barons and army officials asking for chimps to call their very own.

Although J.A.C.K. can celebrate 23 success stories, there is no progress being made when the alarming news of a lively chimp trafficking trade is illuminated. Lwiro Primates in South Kivu (near Goma) recently introduced two more chimps to its primate sanctuary, in addition to the 45 chimps and 50 monkeys that they already house. The existence of sanctuaries and refuges like Lwiro, J.A.C.K. and Ngamba Island (Entebbe, Uganda) are indications of human failure and the tremendously steep climb that is ahead.

Soccer balls, bonbons and old running shoes aren’t going to save Africa. The need for effective educational programs and a support staff to ensure their continuity are essential puzzle pieces in seeking equilibrium in this situation. Without education, poverty and corruption create an ugly piggy-back monster for a population surviving with limited resources.

086Ikia is a product of the conflict, soupy morals and disorientation of the Congo. She died 12 hours after she arrived at J.A.C.K. Severely malnourished and dehydrated, her immune system and vitality was compromised long before we could be of assistance. Her weak, initial cries upon arrival were the last we heard. By morning, she was unresponsive, her limp body was unable to resuscitate. She died in Augie’s arms, unaware of the safety and security that finally surrounded her.

The Congolese traditionally bury their dead the very same day, and by 2:30 that afternoon, Ikia’s body was placed in an elaborate coffin decorated with ivory bows and lined with cloth. She was customarily buried with tree branches pushed into the dirt of her grave, as the branches would take her back to nature when she went to the otherworld. The service was brief; the emotions of the J.A.C.K. staff were visible on drawn faces and in clenched fists. The tug-of-war between anger and inconceivable sadness for her death pulled at each of us.

Ikia reminded us of the consequence of poverty and the desperation of a beleaguered Africa. Her death provided insight into the existence of chimp colonies that were unheard of. Of course we envisioned a different life for her, but understand that her death was for a purpose that will prove to be greater than her life.

Please tell everyone you know about the chimp trafficking situation in the Congo. And if you want to donate money to a cause that will directly influence the future, wild population of chimpanzees in Africa, visit the J.A.C.K. website or Facebook link at:

Lwiro Primates:


Or if you’re bilingual like the Congo believes all Canadians to be due to Celine Dion singing French songs, visit the J.A.C.K. site on Facebook (en francais):


Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Don’t Let The Bed Bugs Bite

After volunteering for three months in a Costa Rican jungle, I came home with an unwelcome  souvenir: worms as long as spaghetti noodles. Malcolm and Liddy convinced me to lick a 9-volt battery. Malcolm, who grew up in England, reassured me that he licked batteries routinely as a kid as a de-worming remedy. So, I licked the battery.  I also drank a Slovakian tea prepared by my then-girlfriend’s mother that tasted like liquid vegemite. I wondered if she was trying to poison me with such a vile brew. It was as bitter as grapefruit peels and burned like chlorine all the way down my esophagus where it promptly set fire to my stomach.

After returning from Costa Rica, I had become accustomed to nearly shitting my pants on a daily basis. The cramps that left me curled up in a tight shrimp ball were also considered normal. I remember lying on the front lawn of Pat and Rene’s lakeside cottage in the kind of position that someone would assume when fired out of a cannon. Pat Lane came out with a spoon and some Pepto Bismol. I said I was fine, but I couldn’t really move from my position. So, she brought me a beer. That’s what friends are for.

It was Cindy and Louise who convinced me of an old wives tale that would surely work. Louise said she had a tapeworm as a child, and her mother successfully lured the worm out with a piece of bread soaked in milk. After several months of intestinal agony, I thought, why not?

When I got home that night, Kate (whose mother made the poison tea) assisted in the worm-removal operation. Unfortunately we had no bread—only multigrain bagels and freezer-burned hot dog buns. We both figured the bun would be better, especially because the bagel had a hole in it. She put the white Wonderbread bun in the microwave and soaked it in a dish with skim milk. And then, while I rolled over prone in bed, she used hockey tape to secure the milk-soaked hot dog bun to my ass.

Milk ran down my legs and soaked the sheets.  I was wide awake thinking of how big of a worm might crawl out of me in the night. And then what? If the worm ate the entire bun, then it would be taped to my ass until I woke up.

I’m not sure how I fell asleep with something so soggy attached to me, and come morning, there was nothing but a bun still attached to me. That’s when I gave up and went to the Tropical Disease Center at McMaster University. Six Vermox pills later and I was given a promising prognosis: I was no longer feeding a thousand.

Travel always brings about unexpected surprises, like intestinal worms that arrive months later like a misdirected postcard. It’s the Tumbu flies of Congo that give me a mild case of the heebie jeebies though. The adult flies lay eggs on drying laundry and when the eggs come in contact with your skin, they hatch and bury themselves under your skin. “Here they form a crop of boils, each with a maggot inside,” the Bradt guide to the Congo reports. But, by smearing Vaseline on the breathing holes, you can suffocate the suckers out of your skin. As they emerge to the surface of the skin, they can be squeezed out but the larvae also have spines which help them hold on. Ew. I have jungle stories about a similar maggoty fly, but that’s for another time. There are many other gruesome things to report on that are endemic to the Congo. Like the pneumonic plague.

The plague is transferred from small animals to the fleas that bite them. Humans can get transmission from flea bites, direct contact with the animal with the fleas, inhalation—or by eating the animal. This is why you shouldn’t eat your pet dog or cat.

The most common and infamous form of the pneumonic plague is the bubonic, acquired by the bite of an infected flea. Jungle towns and crowded mining camps are breeding grounds for such a plague, and Ituri, Congo, is the most active plague region on the planet. My hometown, Brantford, Ontario, proudly boasts about being the home of Wayne Gretzky. I wonder if Ituri has a welcome sign indicating “Most Active Plague Region on the Planet!”

Plague symptoms aren’t as dramatic as I thought: chills, diarrhea, fever, headache and swollen lymph nodes. The most obvious sign that you have the plague? Death in one week. There are antibiotics to treat the bubonic plague, but in the middle ages, millions of Europeans died of measly flea bites. Shame.

The Bradt guide has provided an intriguing breakfast read for me over cups of tea. I have learned that if I am bitten by an animal suspected to be rabid, I should scrub with soap, strong iodine, gin, whisky or rum, to stop the virus from entering my body. Traveling with the rabies immunoglobin is recommended, but I should be prepared to drop $800 US. However, “mortality is 100% and death from rabies is probably the worst way to go.”

Of greater concern is the Ebola virus. In 2001 and 2003 there were outbreaks near the Gabonese-Congo border with 302 infected. Of that number, 254 died—with many family members contracting Ebola during burial ceremonies due to handling bodies in unsanitary conditions. It is fatal three weeks after transmission and can be contracted from infected bodily fluid exchange, contaminated needles, or eating (or handling) contaminated meat of gorillas, chimps, antelopes and porcupines. All have been crossed off my must-eat list.

Ebola presents like malaria and typhoid with a high fever, headache, exhaustion, dizziness and sore throat. But the bleeding from every opening in the body is the best indication of Ebola. Death occurs from organ failure or blood loss.

Chantal is fearful of the day the Congo is put in quarantine because of an Ebola outbreak. With no incoming or outgoing flights, the Congo would have to rely on its own water sources and produce–much of which is shipped in from South Africa, Kenya and Belgium. They would be shut-off from major supply sources, creating an even greater outbreak of starvation and violence.

The Bradt guide advises that if a hospital visit is required while in Congo, “you may be exposing yourself to even more risk.” Poorly sanitized and supplied, the book recommends flying to Johannesburg.  “Under no circumstance should you receive a blood transfusion unless the option is your own demise.”

Sean Rorison, who bravely pieced the Congo guide together over a span of five years offers this gem: “whatever you think you may need in the Congo, bring it. It is not the country to be lean on what you bring.” The usual advice is to bring half the stuff and twice the money. In the Congo? Bring twice the stuff and three times the money. And a lot of Q-tips.

Rorison speaks of the corruption that I have been a witness to since the day I arrived. He suggests “unless an officer is standing in front of your vehicle, with his hands waving, blowing his whistle so hard a vein is going to pop—just drive around them. If stopped later, apologize and say you didn’t see them.”

Chantal’s advice—give them the 500 francs ($1 US). Although their guns are likely from the 1940s and sans ammunition, no sense in testing the theory.

And, under no circumstance should you perform any magic tricks (and I don’t mean a disappearing act). Rorison writes that being able to perform magic implies that you are possessed and communicating with otherworld spirits which is totally not cool with the Congolese.  They will cast away their own children into the streets if there is suspicion of sorcery or magic. Luckily, I don’t know any magic tricks—in fact, I never did learn how to make a loon call with a blade of grass or make that really authentic farting sound by cupping your hand in your armpit and pumping your arm up and down. I think I’ll be safe.

I’ve already breached the traveller’s maxim of how to determine what to safely eat: PEEL IT, BOIL IT, COOK IT OR FORGET IT.  Curiously, I stopped having diarrhea the day I arrived in the Congo. But, as Rorison scolds, “other fecal-oral diseases come from getting other people’s feces in your mouth.” (But your own is okay?) This happens when cooks don’t wash their hands after a dump, or you touch a contaminated door handle and possibly bank notes (as my friend Andrea warned me in Uganda—Congolese women keep money up their bums to hide it from their husbands).  Gives a whole new meaning to safety deposit boxes and automatic withdrawals.

Dr. Jane Wilson-Howarth wrote a very graphic article in the guide about how to identify what intestinal creepy-crawly you might have, characterized by if you are passing “blood or slime. If the diarrhea is greasy and bulky and is accompanied by sulphurous (eggy) burps, one likely cause is giardia.” She suggests Coke or orange squash (??) with a three-finger (and wash those three fingers!) pinch of salt to rehydrate. I think Wilson-Howarth should write children’s books, the content would be a genuine crowd-pleaser. What kid wouldn’t love talk about eggy bum burps? Or was she talking about burps from one’s mouth?

I do hope to remain worm-less this time ‘round, but if I do inadvertently find myself eating shit or licking bank notes, I know the remedy (which does not involve hot dog buns taped to my ass or Congolese money up my ass). I have been chimp-licked, French-kissed by a giraffe and shared cooties with four cheetahs in Kenya, so I’m crossing my sanitized fingers.

Please wash your hands after reading this, and remember– absolutely no magic tricks or porcupine burgers in the Congo. Sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.

Not sure where this giraffe's tongue has been...

Not sure where this giraffe's tongue has been...

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Chimp Rules of Engagement


1. If a chimp bites you, it is imperative that you bite back to show dominance.

2. Beware of Bashi—he likes to throw fistfuls of stones and dirt when you least expect it. And Shasha, she has shit in her hand most of the time, but there is no need to worry, she eats it. As she defecates she catches it in her hand as it’s best served warm.

3. Chimps are very curious about blemishes, moles and anything on human skin that shouldn’t be.  Pasa has nearly picked a mole completely off my leg while the others distract me. Mwisho was more fixated on the veins in my hand. With great determination he tried with all his chimp might (which is a lot) to squeeze my veins between his fingers. Surely he thought I had a severe case of worms.  Africa was also occupied with my freckles, scratching many of them to see if they were removable.  Upon discovering my tattoos, she licked and sucked at the ink, desperate to remove them.

4. When first being introduced to a chimp, you offer the back of your hand, much like meeting Prince Charming.  You will be well sniffed and stared at with gentle eyes the colour of hazelnuts.

5. Chimps are as particular as we are. The morning and afternoon milk must be at a consistently palatable temperature. Tall, no whip, full fat, shot of honey and propolis. If it is too hot or too cold they push the bottle away in utter disgust at the barista (me).

6. A morning in the baby enclosure with six young chimps will prove to be the ultimate test of Q-tips, Irish Spring and Tide. The settings of my Filth-o-Meter had to be altered to accommodate the dry season in the Congo—and the somersaulting antics of dusty chimps for several hours.

7.  A one-year-old chimp is like a bowling ball with four arms. Nothing is safe—forget the Royal Doulton collection and bananas at waist-level.

8. Pockets provide ongoing scavenger hunts for chimps (as do nostrils and ears). Cell phones, keys, lip balm and ob tampons are always great discoveries that require exchanges of fruit, bread, or something better than their new-found treasure.

9. Beware of Kimo who enjoys flinging himself at the most unexpected moment on to your head. If a flying leap isn’t possible, watch out for the thwack of the branch that he has pulled to the ground to smack back in your face.

10. Your neck will become a reasonable facsimile for a tree trunk in no time.

So, you wonder—what is a typical day in the life at J.A.C.K. (Jeunes Animaux Confisques Au Katanga) chimp refuge?

Weekend mornings begin at 5:30 when the equatorial sky is still black with stars. Mornings can run as smooth as pudding as long as there is electricity, which, generally there isn’t. If there is no electricity, there is no running water.  Even when the power is on, the stove top isn’t optimal—bringing a pot of water to a boiling point is exasperating–a task that takes over an hour and a half.

034Like a Starbucks employee, I prep an order for 23 chimps. Fourteen one litre bottles with six scoops of milk powder, a big dollop of honey and a propolis capsule for each.  Six 200ml bottles are prepped for the babies: Africa, Dian, Pasa, Santa and Kimo. Micah, the darling one-year-old still in a diaper gets her own special order of half homo, half hot water. During the day the chimps also hydrate with water mixed with a teaspoon of sugar and salt (Gatorade for chimps). Kimo gets a bottle of diluted raspberry grenadine as too much milk gives him the shits.

We actually share 98.7% of the same DNA as chimpanzees. I often wonder why some smarty-pants dietician hasn’t introduced a chimp knock-off diet that would rock our ever-fattening world. The chimp menu is actually quite appealing—hot milk, papaya, watermelon, mango, apples, pears, oranges, bananas (#1 pick), pumpkin, kale, radish, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip, carrots, leeks, bush onions (my taste-test results:  vinegary, sour with a lime juice punch, with fiery seeds like peppercorns), peanuts and buns from Le Brioche bakery. The  bukari balls made of manioc (similar appearance to a yam) are also a crowd pleaser—the chimps and Congolese alike eat them with the same zest as a North American near a bag of Doritos during Superbowl.

The chimps have their lattes around 8:15 am, followed by a bread toss into the enclosure around 9 am. It’s a mad scramble for the buns and many of the chimps end up walking around on two legs with their bread cache safe in their arms. At 11 am and 4:30 they are fed the fruit and vegetables.  Medications are given as necessary while the chimps are preoccupied with the dinner entree. For runny noses they get a swipe of Vicks Vapo-Rub, for coughs—cherry flavoured human-grade syrup. Eucalyptus essential oil is applied externally, as curious chimps will inevitably taste and lick anything that is on their body. The eucalyptus has proven to be a successful remedy for the many bronchial infections and common colds that the chimps suffer during the colder months.



When the chimps are ill with snotty noses, it is a sad sight. Like a children’s daycare, the cold passes chimp to chimp like Hollywood gossip. They seem so helpless, unable to blow their noses into Kleenexes. Instead, they rub the back of their arm against their nose and watch as the snot sticks to their arm, still connected to their nose in a long string. Then they eat it. Micah is a nose-picker at the best of times, totally unaware of the social taboo. She picks, examines it and eats it. Or, sometimes she dips her booger-clad finger into Chantal’s coffee if it is within reach. And if you’re not paying attention, sometimes that same finger finds its way into your mouth.

Micah stays with us at home as she is too young to overnight at the refuge with the extreme temperature drops. During the day, temps can reach a favourable 28 degrees, but at night, there is a plummet to 15 teeth-chattering degrees. Chantal tells me now that I have arrived during the African winter. No kidding! I can see my breath most mornings, and not because I have eaten goat testicles the night before!

The J.A.C.K. refuge is a short drive from home, located within the Lubumbashi Zoo (which is ranked as the number one place to take your hot Congolese date). Micah joins the others in the baby enclosure during the day—losing her diaper and tiny t-shirt to become a member of the wild again. She climbs as high as the others, and walks in tandem with Santa on the ground–as though they are practicing for a three-legged race. Dian is the cry baby of the lot, she sticks to Africa like Saran Wrap and wails if they  are separated. If she doesn’t get her bottle fast enough, or a banana is stolen from her hands, she is crying like a kid sister.

Pasa is easily picked out of the crowd. As soon as he is within your tickling reach, he is on his back, squirming, desperate for a good tickle. He laughs and pulls all his limbs into a tight ball—but begs for more.

Cyril, a French vet student and I in the baby enclosure at J.A.C.K.

Cyril, a French vet student and I in the baby enclosure at J.A.C.K.

I tell you, there is no greater feeling than holding a little chimp in your arms. If only they could talk for but a moment, and tell their story—all that they have seen and suffered. Like Santa who was the “lucky star” of the Congolese military, bringing them good luck and protection in battle in Kivu.  She would be carried at the front of the line as they went into combat. Coco belonged to the Congolese President’s family and when the President learned that keeping a chimp was illegal, he brought Coco to J.A.C.K. (with a camera crew in tow). Wanza arrived at the refuge as an alcoholic who refused to accept milk for the first six months.

Each chimp has a history that makes my stomach turn in angry knots. The humans responsible for such atrocities may receive a week in jail, but this has only happened once since Chantal’s involvement with the refuge two years ago.

Timid Kala was owned by a Chinese copper mine big wig who carted her around to the bars as a circus act. She has a scarred, hairless patch on her right shoulder where cigarettes werebutted out on her skin. Other chimps have been caught and injured in wire snare traps. The traps are set on the ground, and because chimps walk on their knuckles, they easily step into the hidden wire loops and become dangerously and sometimes fatally entangled.

Many are victims of the pet trade, where up to 10 chimps can be violently killed in order to capture the infant to sell on the roadside for $600 U.S. in a wooden crate the size of a bread box. Driving home with Micah in the front seat of the Landcruiser doesn’t spark any reaction from locals who see her sitting on my lap. The lack of response indicates that owning a chimp is acceptable.

Unfortunately, the J.A.C.K. refuge doesn’t have the authority to seize a chimp off the streets, or from wealthy expats keeping them as pets.  In the Congo, if you have money, anything can be bought—and if you illegally have chimps in your house, certain higher-up individuals can be paid off to ensure no further hassles or confrontations.

Unfortunately, agreeing to buy a chimp for sale (which might seem logical to ensure its immediate safety and future) only contributes to the exotic animal trade. Such a purchase would confirm that there is a demand for chimps, and locals would respond by finding more chimps to sell on the streets.

The Minister of the Environment must approve each seizure, and sometimes this involves bribe money to speed up the process. The media is contacted and the local (and only) vet assists in every new chimp’s arrival to identify any health concerns. The quarantine period for new chimps is usually two to three months, depending on their response to care, feeding and socialization.

The J.A.C.K. refuge, established in 2006 by Frank and Roxanne Chantereau (supported by six highly attentive Congolese staff and Chantal, co-director) is a unique haven for chimps that have fallen prey to human greed and ignorance. At the sanctuary, they orphaned chimps are introduced to a group that will provide companionship, stimulation and camaraderie.

Some of the chimps have arrived at the refuge with no knowledge of how to groom or make a nest because they were taken from their mothers at such a young age. They are provided with hay to make nests in their night enclosure where they sleep, but there are also tarpaulin hammocks available. Chantal has observed remarkable progression among the newly introduced chimps as they teach one another and mimic skills that their mothers would have taught them.  

Tongo, the smallest and youngest of the adult group, is constantly being pulled between Seki and Mwisho. They fight over her, wanting to take care of the youngster.  Mwisho, who doesn’t like bread at all, actually collects bread for Tongo and keeps it protected in his arms while the others prowl for pieces to steal from the younger ones.

Cheetah and Seki who arrived at the refuge together are attached at the hairy hip, and walk as though they are wearing a donkey costume. Cheetah is the head and Seki pulls up the rear. Two years ago there was a tragic fire in the night enclosure. An arsonist set fire to the dry hay in the cage and two of the chimps died—one of smoke inhalation, the other of severe burns to her entire body. When bush fires burn in Lubumbashi, Cheetah and Seki become extremely anxious. The smell of smoke terrifies them, a painful reminder of the night they escaped, and two of their family members perished.

Watching the chimps interact, there is reassurance that they are truly content.  J.A.C.K. has recently obtained a parcel of land that will allow for future release of the chimps into a wild space. This is the ultimate goal. Because chimp groups are impenetrable by outsiders, it would be impossible for an individual chimp to be released and accepted into another group. The J.A.C.K. group will be released together and be slowly weaned off food rations. This will be a phenomenal success, if the chimps can resume an independent life in the wild, with their adopted family.

I am incredibly lucky to be part of this organization. The faces of the chimps, their comical antics and pant-hoots of excitement when we arrive with bottles of hot milk are unforgettable. Each morning, as I hold Micah, feeding her spoonfuls of strawberry yogurt, I feel the beginning of a terrible ache that will split my heart the day I have to leave. 

Micah and I

Micah and I

The memories will remain solid in my mind. The way the sun sets in a hazy blur of smokey orange on the horizon. The wide-eyes of the five nocturnal bushbabies at the refuge as they crawl down to feed on cay eggs, tomatoes and papaya. Long after I go, I will hear Pasa calling out to us, wanting company as he falls asleep. I will feel Santa’s lips on my neck and her pot belly in my arms.

Yes, I am hooked on a feeling. Where this may lead, I don’t know. Does it have to lead somewhere? Can’t I just have this experience for the purely selfish exhilaration it brings? Maybe I’ll look into a zoology program, maybe I’ll write a book on the chimps that have found a home in J.A.C.K.—maybe I will simply tell stories for the rest of my life about the time in the Congo when time didn’t matter. When I spent my days with the chimps, absorbed and consumed by the fragility and beauty of life.

At night, when I close my eyes, the Congo will be there, alive and vivid. Kimo, Coco, Micah, Santa, Pasa—they will all be there too.  The chimps who have made my heart beat so fast and hard will always be with me.


To learn more about J.A.C.K. and how you can help (like adopting a chimp for $150 US a month) visit:

And if you missed the post about Shelia and Dave Siddle and the Chimfunshi chimp sanctuary in Zambia:

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

First Impressions

My deepest apologies to Madame Massicotte for never paying attention in French class. At the time it seemed more important to snip Laura Toth’s split ends or play poker with Scott Berry. Now I find myself in a French-speaking country with the vocabulary of a dumb six-year-old. “Il fait chaud” (it is hot), “Il fait froid” (it is cold), “Je suis fatigue” (I am tired), “Je suis confiture” (I am jam—I want jam, but I can’t remember the word for want).

 I can decipher a menu easy enough, and often the translations have already been made. At the oldest hotel in Lubumbashi, Chantal and I had a real roar over the menu. She had never bothered reading the translations, naturally—but when I questioned her about the croque madam that was described as a “cheese sandwich served with human” I really wasn’t sure what to think. After all, this is the Congo, and as the media paints it, ordering a cheese and human sandwich wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. I was slightly disappointed to learn that the human part was actually an egg. And the “pancakes with comedy” turned out to be crepes with ice cream. Not funny at all! Next time we lunch there I will order the “skewers of beer” and the “ship’s buoy of chocolate.” How can you go wrong with a ship’s buoy?

Wanda actually wonders if I am in Africa at all with my detailed foodie descriptions of dinners involving gruyere, Chambly and brie cheese platters, buttery pastries and dark chocolate. It is the Belgian Congo after all, and when in Congo, one must do as the Belgians do! Undoubtedly, I will return to Canada with gout, which will be a better fate than the Ugandan shigella I had from eating street goat a la flies and grasshoppers laced with fecal matter.

The Congolese response to mizungos is what has surprised me the most. It’s not as ecstatic (i.e.–barely noticed) in comparison to the Ugandan welcome. In Entebbe, kids mobbed me like a red carpet star, yelling “America!” “Obama!””Mizungo!” and more commonly, “Mizungo, give me money!” Here, there is the occasional stare, but the Belgian presence over the years has created an obvious difference of awareness and acceptance. The copper mines in Lubumbashi are largely Asian owned, and there is a sizeable Greek and Lebanese population as well, making the Congo more multicultural than Abbotsford. The excited response usually comes from other whites, surprised to see a familiar face in the crowd.

Living here though, is similar to life inside a vacuum canister, the dust penetrates everything. Lip balm and skin lotion double as adhesive tape for the dirt. My eyeballs are on fire at night, and my eyelids are like sandpaper closing over them. I have underestimated my supply of Q-tips and overestimated on the protein bar front. Instead of pink grapefruit body butter I should have packed cans of lemon-scented Pledge and Swiffer cloths to dust myself.

Most of the roads are paved (thanks to the Asian mining companies), but not-so-paved where the potholes are as big as bathtubs. Drinking a 750 ml Simba beer midday is a challenge in itself, let alone enduring the drive home along the pock-marked “roads” that test the strength of your bladder walls. Cars constantly appear to be driving head-on, but it’s all in mutual avoidance of breaking an axle, which happens frequently. Vehicles are simply abandoned in the meteorite-sized holes for non-existent tow-trucks to remove. At one intersection, if you turn too sharply to the right, your whole vehicle could be lost in a hole that is over six feet deep and as big as the Landcruiser.

There are no traffic rules, occasionally working stoplights—and few fender benders. When there is an accident, everyone dies, and the number of deaths can be shocking. The minivan taxis, “fula fulas,” often carry over 30 people. There are seats in the front, a metal bench for about seven (or thirteen) directly behind it, and then, cargo space in the back where everyone else piles in—sometimes in the middle of the intersection. Chantal tells horrifying accident stories that are commonplace here. A few weeks ago, a fula fula overtook her on the road and collided head-on with a truck—35 dead. But one must keep driving to get out alive. It is a true hit and RUN scenario.

We pass several police officers on a daily basis, called “canaries” for their yellow uniforms. There are random “toll booths” where the suggested payment is 500-1,500 francs. The officers earn about $130 US a month, but pad their wallets with these friendly stops. Oddly, there are no coins in the Congo, and only three bank notes (100, 200 and 500 francs). Your wallet can easily be as thick as a NY sirloin, but contain about 10 bucks (500 francs= $1 US). Yawning men in cowboy hats and rubber boots sit ‘downtown’ with stacks of cold hard francs, ready to exchange for US dollars. This is completely acceptable, and recommended versus a bank exchange with a pocket-gouging rate of return.

In other criminal matters, due to vocal protest from mizungos last year who were infuriated with the frequent stops imposed by police asking for documents and visas, the governor implemented a “Courtesy Month” that will take place every July. For this month, no arrests can be made, and officers are not allowed to ask for any documents. Frankly, paying out a few francs has to be worth the officer’s courtesy in non-courtesy months. The road dotted with canaries and AK-47 armed security that passes by the President’s summer house comes with its own unique regulations. You can’t overtake another car, the speed limit is 40km/hour and there is absolutely no honking permitted. Try to tell that to the one-year-old chimp riding shotgun!

Street kids need to be kept happy as well—and this is achieved by slipping them the police toll booth payment of 500 francs. They are territorial, and can be found at most street corners taking turns running out to vehicles with Cheshire cat grins, rubbing their flat bellies to indicate hunger. Chantal tells me that when the President is in Lubumbashi, the road to his house (which is a major throughfare) is closed, and the street kids are taken about 50 km out of the city for the duration of his stay. I imagine Vancouver will use the same tactic to beautify East Hastings during the Olympics. Bus to Abbotsford, all aboard!

The streets are consistently loud and lively with aggressive vendors hawking eggplants and avocadoes as big as footballs, small birds, wooden ashtrays and mandarins. If you park your car, odds are that when you return it will be washed by entrepreneurial street kids hoping for another 500 francs or so. Chantal told me that in Zambia, the same creative money-making spirit is witnessed along the highways where young men will fill potholes to improve the roads—then stop drivers and demand money to compensate for their selfless road improvement work.

Many vehicles belch diesel, but gasoline is sold in dusty plastic jugs at makeshift lemonade-type stands along the roads, often mixed with fillers. Much like the local hooch derived from maize (corn) which is topped up with methanol for kissy-cool breath and a really cheap date. Overall, there is a great feeling of uselessness here as there is someone to unload the Landcruiser, someone to iron my clothes (there are flies that lay eggs on clothing which can turn your skin into a worm hatchery), someone to empty shopping cart items on the conveyor belt , direct you as you parallel park and even someone to feed the cats and guinea pig at the house I’m staying at. Chantal explains that if you do these things for yourself, somebody is out of a job.

This is life in cosmopolitan Lubumbashi, a city of four million with one fax machine, one vet, a Greek restaurant with a basketball court (that serves tasty garlicky goat testicles and greasy frog legs) and a zoo that is the most popular place to get married and/or take a date. Not exactly the Congo I imagined. Surprisingly there are fewer guns here than I expected. However, my arrival at the airport just one week ago was like film footage for Midnight Express. Chantal was waiting with two “protocols” who whisked me through the crush of locals and armed airport officials like I was a celebrity. The men flanked me and in a fast exchange of US money, passport, visa and immunization card, I was pushed through to the other side of Immigration. The hired men grabbed my bags and ensured that I myself wasn’t grabbed. With such beefed-up security and feverish chaos, I worried for a brief moment about what I had signed up for.

Only days later, as I ran around the leafy Belgian school grounds under a tangerine sky with the smell of roasted corn heavy in the air, the chorus of crickets out-singing The Killers on my iPod was testament to the peacefulness I feel here. Sure, there is clear and present danger if you invite it. For example, homosexuality in the Congo? Totally acceptable if you want to sit in a jail cell for the rest of your gay life. On the other hand, if you wish to have somebody killed, homosexual or not, this can be executed in exchange for twelve beers. They don’t even have to be cold, street kids will happily do anything for beer.

And in this same civilized, quirky city, the local brewery is holding a contest with generous prizes under the bottle caps. There are new cars (that no local could afford to drive due to gas prices), 25 pounds of wheat (that’s what I’m gunning for) and cans of corned beef (which the Belgians feed to the dogs, but the Congolese eat as a meal) that are up for grabs for lucky drinkers. My image of Congo was irregularly shaped by two Australian women, Andrea and Kirsty, who took over floor space in the Jane Goodall office in Entebbe after being evacuated from Goma by the UN last November. But, if you were to play a word association game and the words “war-torn” or “civil war” came up, Congo would probably be an educated match. It has been war-torn to bits, and the stories of countless Congolese women who have been raped by the militia and army in the north bleed true.

The early 90s were savagely turbulent, and the ugly scars of war were most pronounced in a widespread famine that saw the decimation and extinction of many wild animal species. Elephants at the zoo were slaughtered by locals and the wild rhino, giraffe, hyena, okapi, zebras, warthogs and buffaloes were wiped out completely. Gone forever.

Chantal was born in the Congo, and her serene childhood image is one of slithering snakes, fluttering butterflies (now obsolete) the heady scent of coffee plantations, abundant birds—and now, the coffee is imported from Kenya and eerily and few birds sing. The once booming copper mines are even feeling the extended reach of the recession that slammed America last year.

In the same breath, the serenity pales when Chantal tells me of the militia imposed curfews—and how she watched an elementary school classmate at the Ecole Belge killed in front of her young eyes, for opening the gate to the school after the 4:00 curfew. My jaw doesn’t drop as far as it first did, as I am becoming sensitized to the stories. Like the time Chantal and her twin sister were thrown in jail for a day for not producing official identification at age 10. Or, of the vivid memories she shares of the militia invading her home and firing rounds of bullets into the ceiling to ensure that her family wasn’t hiding any mercenaries. Apparently her father was jailed on a regular basis, and this was normal.

I eagerly listen to her Congolese stories as we drive to the chimp sanctuary. The billboards along the main roads advertise all the essentials in Lubumbashi life: cooking oil, Nokia cell phones (there are no land lines here), and skin-lightening lotions because apparently white is the new black. White skin = power. I laugh to think that in North America we strive to be the colour of a Coffee Crisp bar, and in the Congo, they’re trying to achieve the reverse. What an upside-down world.

 In the theme of an upside-down planet of confused cultural values, the strangest sight so far has been the hearse that motored by blaring what would be associated with ice cream truck style-music. I could hear it before I could see it—then the truck blurred past, towing a coffin enclosed in glass, much like a large aquarium. It was gussied up with white=ribbons and bows that seemed more suitable for a wedding, with the god-awful music pumped out over a loud speaker. Although, truth be told, the music was almost a refreshing change from the daily assault of Michael Jackson tributes blasting from the discotheques. Billy Jean, Beat It, Thriller, et al.

And this is the part where I leave you hanging, like a chimp. The chimps that lured me here will hog most of the space in my upcoming blogs–but I had to introduce you to the sandbox landscape I have settled in first. And now I plan to settle even deeper into my bed that feels like a pile of lumpy banana skins.

 This is the only time I am clean, when I am sleeping. Goodnight, bon soir. Je suis confiture. I am jam.

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

Nairobi Nights

I had spent the last seven hours issuing threatening glares to the rambunctious SpongeBob SquarePants kid “seated” behind me who had Riverdanced on the back of my seat from Toronto to Amsterdam. Luckily I was able to turn my fixation to the burning sky of electric orange and grapefruit-flesh pink as the plane chased an eternal sunset. Crossing time zones at 800km/hour allows for such remarkable displays, creating skyscapes suitable for inspirational posters. The clouds looked like they could be walked upon, billowy white like my great-grandmother’s hair in the morning, and then, to the west–ribbed like sand from ebbing ocean waters.

My fidgety seatmate was like a Jack Russell, minus her tongue up my nostrils and exploring my ear canals. She was deaf in one ear, and because I am a fantastic mumbler, she quickly gave up on communication with me and read all the information tucked in the seat pocket in front of her, including the barf bag and how to exit the plane in case of emergency. Is that even an option?

The KLM flight attendants were as lovely and manicured as Bob Barker’s Price is Right wing-women. They passed out smoked almonds with pearly smiles, and I shot a pearly smile back. Thank god for European airlines and their pooh-pooh reaction to the peanut allergies that have created frantic high-alerts in North American elementary schools and airlines (who serve garlicky Bits & Bites as a shoddy substitute). Now, even packages of peanuts come with disclaimers: “This product may contain nuts.” And everything that doesn’t have an iota of a relationship with peanuts, like popsicles and tampons, also come with a disclaimer, “This product may have come in contact with tree nuts or dairy.”

When the plane touched down at Schipol in Amsterdam at 6 a.m., anticipation, the fuel of dreams, longing, cravings and travel, percolated under my skin that was beginning to feel like ever-tightening sausage casing. My whole body had become a whoopee cushion of puffiness. The blood that should have been inching towards my feet was leaking into my eyes, making them as pink as an albino rat’s.

My head had felt like a shook-up snow globe since I left Abbotsford on June 22nd, and now, finding myself on the Leidesplein in Amsterdam, walking through extended whiffs of skunky pot, calm was returning. I didn’t even care that I spent most of my day completely lost. I had 12 hours before my flight to Kenya, and I didn’t stop walking for 10 of them. I tried slimy smoked eel and cod at a herring shack near the Singel canal, had a sleeve of Palm and a “tosti” (poor excuse for a grilled cheese) along another houseboat-studded canal and poked around some supermarkets in between (discovering Paprika Lays potato chips, cans of already mixed gin and tonic and brie wheels as big as the tires on my Suzuki). I wrote reassuring postcards to indicate my aliveness to potentially fretting family members and Wanda, walked through the Red Light District with a non-averted gaze and took a cruise along the ambient canals in a four-language guided tour. At this point my head was snapping back uncontrollably in a narcoleptic-type sleep. The girl beside me must have thought I had Tourette’s, without the swearing part.

I returned to Schipol airport confident that I had avoided a deep vein thrombosis with all my walking. I was unscathed and proud of myself for not getting smucked by a bike or a moped. They both seemed to be coming at me from all directions the entire day as I navigated the cobblestoned streets with names a minimum of 26 letters long, all ending with “splein,” “strecht” or “straat.”

I boarded the plane again, taking my coveted window seat with leg room adequate for a chihuahua and watched dreamy Amsterdam go poof under the cloud cover. Drifting through another eight-plus hours of flying time, I arrived ruffled and cramped in Nairobi, where everyone deplaned in a non-orderly fashion. Like the crush of excited children wanting to whack a birthday piñata. It was like the mobs you read about where six people die from getting trampled. I not-so-kindly told the guy behind me that standing closer to me didn’t make the “line” go any faster. It was one of the survival lines I frequently used in Uganda.

I had completely forgotten about the miniature personal space bubble that Africans manage to maintain. My brother Dax and Wanda would have already thrown punches. Instead of inching forward in line, I purposely leaned back into the guy leaning on me—ha! Reverse psychology, but I bet he didn’t even notice, or care. I was sleepwalking to the Lubumbashi gate when I learned that my Kenya Airways hop-over to the Congo had left an hour and a half early–proving that the concept of “African time” can still be predictably unpredictable.

The 20-hour flight delay I had in Toronto barely registered now as I had to digest the news of the hitch that came with missing the connecting flight. Unfortunately, because the Congo isn’t exactly a tourist mecca, outgoing flights don’t run at the same Westjet-greyhound-pace to sun-soaked destinations like Hawaii and Puerto Vallarta. I was told by a hot and bothered gate agent that the next outgoing flight was in two days, on Saturday morning. I could have flown to Addis or Johannesburg, but that would only take me further from my destination, to pace in a different airport.

Tired, without energy to battle and bitch, I made arrangements for Saturday with the backpack on my back slowly compressing my last remaining discs. I had intentions of crying, but was too dehydrated. I accepted my fate gracefully while the angry woman at the wicket beside me vocalized what I more accurately felt. She yelled so loud for so long that I had a ringing in my ears like one gets after a rock concert. I asked Hot and Bothered where I could find a phone and was told that there weren’t any. Baggage lockers? Nope, none of those either due to security reasons. Internet? Two dollars a minute—oh, and that guy, who sells magazines at Gate 9, he will let you use his cell phone for $4 a minute. Phone sex operators don’t even charge that much!

I phoned Chantal in the Congo, who was anticipating my arrival that morning. I emailed everyone else to vent and moan and illustrate my new surroundings. Missionaries and dusty travelers, barefoot and curled up in balls along the hallways, the ripe scent of armpits, like wasabi striking my brain. There was a mosque and a meditation centre being used as surreptitious napping quarters, stores selling giraffe carvings and beef samosas being sold for close to the same price as a carving and a one minute phone call. By now, my bags had already become a part of me, and delirious from lack of sleep I skulked to the Transit Lounge where I was told I could sleep for four hours for $25US.

This is where I found Betty– who herded me into her tourism office of faded safari posters from the 70s. She force-fed me the idea of staying at Central Park Hotel downtown. Her first quote was $170US a night, and we’re not talking Royal York glamour and rose petals floating on the bathwater. The dated pictures she pressed into my hands showcased a bed as big as a tennis court (which turned out to be true), wi-fi in the rooms (not so true), a FREE gym (not true) and a bright bathroom that would allow me to take a shit and shower at the same time due to the proximity of both.

Betty insisted that I would be bored anywhere else and pushed the Central Park digs on me. And she would only accept cash and quickly escorted me to an ATM where she calculated how many Kenyan shillings I would need. I trusted her, but entering 25,000ksh into the ATM key pad made me quiver a little. It was the equivalent of $350US she told me more than once. When I asked about cheaper options she assured me that I would be robbed. “See your laptop—GONE!” She snapped her fingers for emphasis. “Everything you own, if you stay somewhere that I do not recommend, will be gone. Then you will say, Betty, why you not tell me about this and I will say, I did, Jules Trotsky. I did.” I corrected Betty on my non-Russian last name and she asked if I was racist. Then she asked where I was really from, and when I said Canada, she had already guessed it. “You have all this hair on your face that I could shave. It is for the cold in Canada I guess.” Betty was obviously a charm school grad. She then went on a rant about developed countries like Canada bringing the swine flu to Africa. “But, I will live longer than you, probably. My skin makes me resistant—you go pink and get rashes like the other white people, not so resistant. Like Michael Jackson, he tried to go white, and now—look—dead.”

Betty did overextend her customer service by coming with me to the hotel with the hired driver, to tuck me in properly. I was pleasantly surprised with the interior and after a tepid shower under a showerhead that emitted water like a fireworks display, I ordered a room service: a buttery omelette, sausages sweet with nutmeg, milky tea and then collapsed in bed for five hours. Desperate for a workout when I regained consciousness, I went to the gym (the #1 reason why I picked Central Park over the other hotels where I would be robbed) and spun on a bike for an hour listening to Kenny Rogers, Africa`s hero. I had also forgotten about Kenny, Dolly and dear Celine Dion being blared in all the bars and buses.

Feeling brave and dismissing the tragic massages I had in Uganda with the woman who had me lie on a bed covered with a red checkered tablecloth while she made my hair into a bird`s nest with oil, I booked an hour with Priscah. “She is the brown one, not the dark one,” I was informed at reception. “Selena is the dark one.” It was euphoric and all-encompassing massage, meaning, if I were a Thanksgiving turkey, I was basted everywhere. There are no borders or polite draping with African treatments. In fact, I didn’t even blink when Priscah climbed on the table to straddle me and massage my ass while Kenny sang “The Gambler,” again.

Content after a kaleidoscope day of emotions, I made my way to the hotel bar for a warm Tusker and a curious chicken curry that came with a baseball-sized serving of ugali (maize flour with water). Before returning to my room I asked a staff member about a local wildlife orphanage called Sheldrick`s that I was interested in visiting. He gave me sketchy details, but I thanked him profusely anyway. “Maybe you would like to show your appreciation with a payment, madam. I will accept US dollars for my help.”

Ahhh, yes. Everything has its price in this world. I remind myself that I am in Africa and that what I spent on my flight is more than a nurse’s annual salary in Nairobi. And so the adventure continues. The only worrying part is that due to the unexpected delays over the last few days I have almost finished my first book (Attachment by Isabel Fonseca) which leaves me with two books—Growing Pains (Emily Carr`s autobiography) and Love in the Time of Cholera (which I assume will slow me down a little). Worst case scenario? I’ll write a book if I run out of words to read.

Until the next dispatch, hopefully from the Congo…

I remain, Jules Trotsky.

To read all the naked details of my Ugandan massage experience:

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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