Posts Tagged With: travel

The Skinny on Aruba

We left home at 3:15am, our brains like cotton candy from sleep debt and our minds surfing on surges of pre-trip adrenalin.

Delirious and uncaffeinated, we stopped at a Tim Horton’s en route. They are marketing red velvet “muffins” now? I was torn between a pretzel bagel and a carrot orange muffin when the oh-so-helpful night cashier barked, “Get the carrot. It’s the best and I don’t like nothin’.” It became my line for the week.

We felt a bit punch drunk queuing up at the United Airlines gate at YYZ. Talk about no frills service. The airline has eliminated seat back entertainment entirely. The flight attendants took cranky to the next level—not even smiles are available anymore. The drink service (oh wow, complimentary water or soda—but that’s it—not even a tiny packet of crappy pretzels or stale cookies with your beverage anymore) was quickly interrupted by turbulence. When a woman in 32B asked politely for tea, the sour attendant (who sounded like she’s sucked on car mufflers half her life) said, “We all have to sit down now. It’s gonna get real bad.” Nice reassurance. There was turbulence, yes, but nothing compared to the 6-year-old kickboxer seated behind me, violently playing with her headlocked My Little Pony.


But, fast forward to Orangestaad, Aruba, the whole point. The Duty Free (named the “Dufry” for reasons unknown) welcomed us with Haig Club scotch shots. We made fast friends with two New Jersey broads who were impressed with our ability to seek out free Scotch before we had even grabbed our baggage.


Our immersion into the liquid sun and crushing heat of Noord was immediate. Our taxi driver kindly took us to a Chinese supermarket to pick up a case of beer (we would soon learn that all the supermarkets are Asian owned and sell everything from Bolognese Lays chips to sushi to KitKat yogurt to wheels of Gouda the size of Goodyear tires). After dumping our bags in our villa and exchanging jeans for bikinis, we found our place poolside. Two inked-up Brazilian boys in Quiksilvers, as brown and oiled as coffee beans, were quick to offer us their leftover grilled chicken and spicy sausage straight from the grill. Yes, we could ease into this. The guys had a solid soundtrack of Queen, Joan Osborne (whatever happened to her? What if God was one of us….Bread and the Smiths. Finally, Celine Dion didn’t make the equatorial cut. Lime parakeets blurred by and called out alongside Freddy Mercury and the troupials (a flashy cousin of our oriole).

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We rented a perfect pad with a kitchenette in Washington ($1,200 CAD) with just eight villas sharing a limestone-tiled courtyard and pool. We were more than happy to take up loungey residence outside the mad tourist real estate of Eagle and Palm Beach.


DSCF8490Eagle is a jammed stretch of low rise hotels (Holiday Inn, Radisson, Occidental) while the all-inclusive high-rise hotshots like the Ritz, Marriot and Rui, monopolize Palm Beach. This neon chunk of Aruba was quickly crossed off our list. I’m forever amazed that people jump on planes and fly seven hours only to seek out Starbucks, the Hard Rock Café, Cinnabon and Hooters. On my first morning run I nearly fell flat to see the likes of KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Burger King and Domino’s Pizza.


Much of the island has been massaged by North American’s appetite and colonially rubbed by Holland (*I have no complaints about the mecca of Dutch cured meat, salty black licorice, stroopwafels and cheese available everywhere). But, there’s a reason Aruba is popular and cruise ships barf out thousands of passengers four times a week—the sea and sky is surreal. It’s arid—you could bet your nest egg it’s not going to rain during your vacation. There are no mosquitoes or pesky flies or bitchy sand fleas. As the Aruban license plates suggest—it is “One Happy Island.”


The sand (and, we are self-titled beach experts) is like cornstarch here—so fine and el blanco—it’s whiter than the Kindle paperwhite. So white (dare I complain) that you can’t even read on the beach because of the glare.


Tradewinds keep sweat licked off your skin before it even has a chance to make itself known. The trademark Divi Divi tree doubles as a compass. Follow the direction of the Divi tree—the tradewinds have blown them all into a southwesterly orientation.


The sun is giant and reliable. Sunsets are like watching the apple drop on New Year’s Eve on Times Square. It’s massive and radiant and an acceptable reason to pop a champagne cork or pop the big question.

As we watched the sky move from Tiffany to mauve from our sandy audience seats, Kim and I marvelled at how different this trip was for us. How easy! We only had to unpack once—we weren’t hopping around solar-powered beach huts every few days. At night, we weren’t tucking in mosquito nets with army cadet precision or hosing ourselves down with DEET. We could actually drink the tap water! (When you know you can’t drink the tap water, you inevitably go into panic mode and end up buying more than ever). Our villa had endless hot water—hot enough to boil lobsters. In fact, the coldest setting of our Aruban shower was still HOTTER than Colombia’s ‘hottest’ shower. And instead of a Grandma floral soap bar the size of a dieter’s pad of butter, we were issued a Costco-sized bar of Ivory. We had towels for the pool, the beach, for showering. Face cloths even. We laughed thinking of our stay in Tayrona National Park where our toilet didn’t even have a seat.

ATM’s in Aruba actually had money in them. We didn’t have to notify the Canadian embassy of our travels. We didn’t need any sketchy immunizations or Dukarol cocktails pre-trip. No bank-breaking anti-malaria pills prescriptions to fill. Our villa had Netflix for crying out loud! We were kitted out with a Cuisinart coffee maker, a Hamilton Beach blender, a Weber grill, air con (ugh—also, why do people fly seven hours to seek out bars, restaurants and hotels that are the same temperature as Canadian winter?), and black-out blinds that even knocked out my wide-eyed insomniac (though the tiny red light on the air conditioning system did keep her awake until I found a mango fruit sticker to blot it out).

Aruba shares our same time zone, electrical voltage (no accidental camera battery frying necessary!), love of karaoke (not us), and sex shops.

The kicker was the Canadian dollar sitting at a pukey 70 cents American. However…


What surprised us most was that there were no beach vendors or touts. No one was egging us on to get our hair braided or to buy shells glued together to look like turtles. “Pretty lady, how ‘bout a massage?” Nothing. No eye-bugging harassment to hop on a sunset catamaran cruise, to rent a jetski or dodgy coconut cookies for sale.

When a string of colourful, makeshift structures on wheels rolled in to the empty stretch between Eagle and Palm Beach, I thought that maybe we’d happened upon a food truck festival of sorts. Dead curious, I finally approached one of the tiny hut owners. About 25 homemade trailers had gathered in the parking lot near the beach, taking up prime waterfront space. There were toilets on wheels even—it was like an instant presto campground for over 75 Arubans and counting.

I was told that it was part of the Holy Week celebration. For two weeks, Arubans congregate on the beach to celebrate. Imagine how quickly that would last in Canada! As if you and 50 of your friends could park your tiny house nation on any ol’ beach. Cool for the Arubans though—but I was disappointed that they didn’t have any greasy empanadas or heavy bricks of rum cake for sale.

Oddly, there was no begging either. No one begging for baksheesh or shillings or, Aruban Florins. Gratuities were automatically added to bills. I read that the unemployment rate is 1%, so, maybe this is what such a state looks like. The dogs don’t even beg.

The bus system is so simple. The lines run north or south—1A or 1B. For $2.30US, you can do a cheater northern tour of the island like Kim and I did, surveying Arashi, Malmok beach and Boca Catalina before committing. But, be forewarned about the buses—in the words of a Lonely Planet writer (Colombia guide), “the air con is at a level to stun an elephant.” When we first asked a local about the bus system Kathleen Johnson (oddly the name of my great aunt) repeated my question with a frown. “How often does the bus run?” “When you are on it, it is running.”


The islanders are point-blank, no guff responders. If you want a serious dose of history, oil refinery politics and an ear-to-the-ground opinion of the red light district in San Nicolaas, drop into Charlie’s for a Balashi and a pound of shrimp. Charlie the Third will serve you the most succulent pile of three minute boiled prawns and atomic “honeymoon sauce” and fill you in on it all (two slim beers and two pounds of prawns–$46 US). While taking long drags on his ever-present cigarette. (And don’t be worried about rolling your eyes—you have to just to take in all that is hanging from the ceiling and plastered on the walls at Charlie’s. It’s a global museum of licence plates, Auschwitz photos, totem poles, aerial maps, trophies, lanterns and kitsch nearly 75 years in the making.


It’s an intelligent island. Elementary school lessons are in Dutch. Kids grow up speaking the native tongue, Papiamento. In grade four they learn English—grade five is an intro to German. Talk about being ready for the world. And, the world is coming to Aruba, it’s obvious. Tourism is the biggest financial injection but sales staff show zero interest in actually making a sale. Whether you walk into Cartier or Ralph Lauren or any of the dozen diamond joints, you probably won’t be acknowledged. Even the smaller vendors in Orangestaad don’t bother to look up from their conversations over Red Bull to convince you of the merits of buying garage-sale-destined grains of sand in a bottle or maracas or carved machetes and parrots. They really couldn’t care. Obviously they’re not making commission or, they’re reserving their energies for the crush of cruisers on day pass and souvenir money to blow.

It was our first travel destination void of diarrhea (*editor’s note: please see shit-pants-in Egypt, Belize, Colombia, ________, etc. blog posts). To live in Aruba, I’d have to shave my head though—those tradewinds just wreak havoc with your hair which may explain the number of beauty salons per capita. If you are into kiteboarding or windsurfing, this is your piece of terra firma. If you have a toupee or like to eat potato chips outdoors—it’s too dangerous.


If you rent a Polaris Razor as we did to rip around the island, you can achieve “skydiver face”—you’ve seen grainy, wobbly footage of divers when their faces go all wonky on the plummet, right? The winds off the east coast replicate this if you are in an open-air UTV at 40mph.

The highlights?

Yeah, the Razor was cool. It was a steep $200 US per day (or, in Canadian pesos, $260, ouch. $1,500 deposit). You can easily circumnavigate the island if you don’t doddle over wooden maracas and Hooters servers. After an hour we were near-deaf and vibrating from the engine roar. Gasoline hung on our skin like teenage boys doused in first date Drakkar cologne. The coast was wild, raw and rough—a sharp contrast to the placid western waters.


The Arikok National Park ($11 US, UTV’s permitted) was a drive-thru safari of winding, windy paved trails (no burrowing owl or rattlesnake sightings). We pulled over for a few spelunks in the Fontein and Quadirikiri Caves. There are no guides, so, you can explore as far as your nerves take you.


We didn’t spot wild donkeys until we were outside the park and their “wildness” is now questionable. We watched as two vehicles were surrounded by the “wilds” seeking snacks. The donkeys are on to the tourist game.


My favourite spot was the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary where nearly 150 donkeys have been rescued from abuse or injured by vehicles. A volunteer proudly told us “we are saving the wild donkeys from being demolished.” We grabbed $1 pellet feed bags but were told to stay on the balcony to feed the donkeys as they are known to create a quick mosh pit.


Cruising through San Nicolaas back to Santa Cruz and Paradera I was happy to see that most dogs were collared. A friend had contacted me just prior to us leaving asking if we were flying direct. The Aruba Rescue Foundation (cutely acronymed “ARF”) is always looking for volunteers to fly back to Toronto with dogs. Fosters will meet you at the airport and the process is seamless for volunteers. I would have brought back 50 but we had a stopover in Newark. (*If you know of anyone going, please reach out here and I’ll put you in contact with the Aruban dog do-gooders!)


If you are looking for a safe, sanitized, super Anglo hot spot with all the Americana pleasures at the ready, Aruba is it. If you’re looking for cheap beach hut rentals, cheap happy hour mojitos, golden Johnnycakes for a buck or, cheap anything—Aruba has a big VISA tag attached to it. Yes, you can get a flight for a steal ($420) but this is not an island where you can live like royalty for $20 a day. We couldn’t even begin to compare our time or expenses in Taganga, Colombia ($32 US for a cabana, 75 cents a beer, $1.25 for an avocado-stuffed arepa). We travelled around Egypt for three weeks for the same price tag!

Did we have fun? Of course. Kim and I can sniff that out anywhere. Aruba is finally a destination that a big percentage of our friends and family would actually enjoy. And that’s good too—we are all different in what we want and demand of our destinations. We just want to call dibs on all the uninhabited islands now. Forget the Cinnabons but, okay, we’ll take some gouda.

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Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Booking Three Weeks in Colombia, South America (aka How We Coped With Our First Snowfall)

Last week, if you had asked, we were rather dead-set on checking out Bolivia and Chile. The week before that I had Curacao all mapped out and was madly flipping between sell-off flight sites.

And, then, quite innocently, Colombia was put on our radar. An affable guy I met in Entebbe, Uganda back in 2008 (in a distraught state, having just had his wallet stolen on an overland bus) had posted his upcoming travel itinerary on Facebook. Andrew, a NY lawyer with a chronic travel bug, has been to the kinds of places that attract us. We seem to be on the same travel parallel. I hit him up for Iceland info two years ago, after learning that he had been there for a stag party.  I offered him savoury bits on Belize. Our worlds had collided in Africa for good reason.

When he mentioned Colombia, I posted some nonchalant comment that he should check out Anthony Bourdain’s recent No Reservations episode on Colombia. The next morning, ironically, I was sucked into a feature on Providencia and San Andres, Colombia in the travel section of the Record. I found myself underlining bits and Googling flight paths before work. The connection times were gross, all routed through Panama with an overnight stay (with Bogota just an hour away). All flights had a stop at JFK (just an hour from Toronto) and a four to six hour layover in New York. However, despite the crappy flights (hell, we endured 17 hours of flying to get to Zanzibar, why the wimpy whining now?

Providencia was totally our speed—it sounded like the magical atoll that we needed after just one blast of snow. We needed a climate-controlled environment, stat.

snow bound

A few winters ago we became big ambassadors of Belize—especially Caye Caulker. The romance was in the casual, lazy vibe, killer cheap curries, colourful beach huts, old school bikes and barefoot philosophy. However, Caye Caulker offers little more than pure sun, gin-coloured water, paralyzing rum drinks and addictive ceviche. There is an opportunity to break your back on a dodgy 2+ hour boat ride to the Blue Lagoon and (better yet) to Lighthouse Caye to see the red-footed booby colony. But, that’s about it–though there is nothing wrong with that winter rehab prescription!

The rest of Belize offered everything else—terrifying cave adventures neck-deep in water, an opportunity to sleep at the zoo, river tubing, howler monkeys and bird mania.


I knew Kim was keen on some adventure and cultural literacy (in tandem with the lazy beach, beer and book days). Colombia appeared again—I was skimming through a Huffington Post article on the Top 50 Cities to See in Your Lifetime. Of course, Colombia was there, like an epiphany, seated at #36.

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36.) Cartagena, Colombia – The colonial city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast has a history filled with explorers, pirates, and royalty, and it’s UNESCO-recognized Old City is every bit as enchanting as you’d expect.

I returned all the guide books I had checked out of the local library on Bolivia and Chile. Now I was searching the catalog for “Columbia.” I was disappointed to see that the search pulled up zero matches. When I expressed my concern to our esteemed librarian, Mary Lou, she immediately tapped away at her keyboard, also in belief. “Let me look,” she said with total librarian authority. She found a 2014 Colombia Moon Guide right off the crack.

“What? How come that came up for you? I typed in the same thing on that computer over there and had no matches.” I shrugged.

“Show me.” We marched off to the terminal near the travel shelves.

The screen still showed my recent search. Keyword: Columbia.

“Well, Jules, ‘Colombia’ is spelled with two o’s not a ‘u.’”

Oh, duh, I’d been busted by the spelling and library police.

Now that I knew how to spell Colombia, the search changed dramatically. That night I laughed at the Moon guide’s content for San Andres. The biggest highlight was “Big Pond.” Rastafarian-owned, the pond had no set hours, no set fee and visitors are told to ask for Fernando. Apparently, if he is there, Fernando will feed white bread to the alligators. Wow. This is the Big Pond. Nearby there was a hole in the coral that, when the tide was just so, sprayed water 10m in the air. I couldn’t believe how exciting San Andres was! Gosh, we’d want to go see the alligator feeding and big splash every day!

Scouring Providencia (an island nearly 800km north of Colombia, but just 230km east of Nicaragua) on and airbnb for accommodations a lesson in frustration. The price points for lackluster ‘hotels’ (not beachfront even) were off-putting (ie. Scary).

And this is how it happens. I started looking at Bogota (elevation too high = cooler temps). Our first questions with travel destinations are always: How’s the heat? And, what’s to eat?

A zesty Brit I met on a Toronto pub patio years ago, Ju Hayes, Facebooked me pronto to say Colombia had giant ant salty snacks and hot chocolate served with melted cheese in the bottom of the mugs. Talk about an apres-ski fondue and hot cocoa all-in-one. I was immediately charmed.

Recurve-billed bushbird

While Kim was busy toiling away at the steel mill, I hunkered down and researched our new unexpected zone—it had to be Cartagena and the 1,760 Caribbean coastline that stretches from Panama to Venezuela. There are 1,800 bird species (the most in the world!) in Colombia. Over 3,500 orchids. Fifty species of bats! There are volcanoes where you can soak in a thermal mud bath, rivers to tube down and desert sand dunes in Nazareth even. I already had us kayaking through the placid mangroves to see the flamingoes and sleeping in cabanas made from yotojoro (cacti) heart.


Humid jungles, arid dunes, sloths, empanadas, empty beaches, coffee farms, solar-powered huts—all the boxes were ticked.

When Kim phoned from work I told her that we had a whole new game plan. I couldn’t wait for her to get home to sell the coastline package to her. I pulled up pics of Tayrona National Park with wild horses on the beach, showed her the crunchy La Sirena cabanas on an old coconut plantation (we’d skip the yoga classes). I wooed her with the Dunas de Taroa that drop 30m into the sea. A few beachy pics of the icing sugar-white sand and the contrast of the walled city of Cartagena and its historic appeal had Kim on board.

jungle hut

As the snow pounded down and cars spun sideways down our street I had my credit card at the ready. We clinked glasses of Lug Tread as we warmed our butts on the kitchen rad. “Let’s do it.”

And, so, suddenly, or not so suddenly, we are going to Colombia for three weeks in January. Stay tuned. And, if you’ve been—let me know! I want all the gory details—who, how, when, why!

Pre-trip homework:

  1. Rent Romancing the Stone. A romance writer sets off to Colombia to ransom her kidnapped sister, and soon finds herself in the middle of a dangerous adventure.
  2. Read One Hundred Years of Solitude. The 1967 novel by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founds the town of Macondo, the metaphoric Colombia.
  3. Re-watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode on Colombia—from drug capital to food capital.
  4. Watch Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods: Colombia The host eats everything from capybara to caiman to jungle rats.
  5. Brush up on 1,800 Colombian birds.
  6. Drink a lot of Colombian coffee so I’m well-versed.
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Cheese Whiz Waffles and Panty Rippers

Reina's hangover helpers --Cheese Whiz and ham waffles

Our sense of smell is a remarkable gateway to our past. There are scents that transport us to a time and place with the inertia of memory on auto-pilot. Zest soap: my great-grandmother’s bathroom. Tiny Tom donuts: the CNE fairgrounds, Labour Day weekend. Gasoline on a still and frozen winter morning: snowmobiling with my grandfather. Alone, they are generic smells, but they take us to individual and treasured parts of our being. I could type out a list of words and I bet five bucks you have a story or person attached to it. Pot roast. Drakkar Noir. Those grade school purple-inked ditto machines that we all got high on before a pop quiz. Wet dog. Sulphur. Mothballs. Root cellars. Lilacs. Tequila. Espresso. See?

When I leave Body Blitz at day’s end, I distinctly smell like spa. If I’ve been to Jimmy’s coffee shop on my break, then I smell like a hybrid: Americano meets spa. Both accessible and instant escapes. Mid- January, a sexy Italian fusion joint opened beside our spa. As I exit the spa’s back door now, I am spirited away by the best smell I know. Fire. The kitchen’s Tuscan wood fire grill cuts out the King West neighbourhood I stand in and throws me headlong into Africa. I’m taken to the Tuesday night markets in Entebbe where vendors beg for your business, motorbike taxis insist on their services, skeletal dogs pick at open garbage heaps and wood smoke clouds the air.

Coconut snapper at Iris Sunnyside, Hopkins Village

The smell of fire takes me a lot of places around the world, and as I walk towards home, away from Gusto and their Tuscan grill, I find myself back in Belize.

Lonely Planet had warned that Belizean food wasn’t remarkable enough to rave about, but not terrible enough to complain about. Arriving with few expectations we readied ourselves for a solid three week feed of starchy rice and beans, wimpy chicken and dismissable warm beer. Kim and I quickly found ourselves with not enough hours to eat all that we wanted.

Mayhem and marvel at Wish Willy's

Caye Caulker, a car-less island 45 minutes from Belize City, was the most satisfying eating safari I’ve been on. Mobile vendors presented a carousel of inviting snacks in the form of warm, spice-hopped corn and chicken tamiltos. We bought jugs of just-blended melon, mango, orange and banana juices (to help balance the local paint-thinner vodka). A sinewy boy sold us iPhone-sized squares of his mother’s prized coconut fudge at the Split for less than a dollar. We had thick and dense banana bread and impromptu pillowy brownies at Wish Willy’s. We didn’t order the brownies, it was merely part of the Wish Willy experience that night. Maurice, a giant chef with a giant personality,  made his way to each table, regardless of whether customers had been served or were midway through dinner, to offer them a generous wedge of his signature brownies, straight from the pan they were just baked in.

By far, our experience at Wish Willy’s was the most comical. We could tell by the number of Belikin beer bottles on each table that “rush” or “fast” was not on the menu (and adherent to the Belizean motto of “Go Slow”). In fact, there was no set menu. A few entrees scratched out on a blackboard offered suggestions, but nothing that was advertised was available. I asked for conch skewers and was served spicy shrimp. Kim requested the curried pork but was convinced to try the snapper. Maurice later insisted she had chops because he ran out of snapper, but a beer later he asked Kim how the snapper was.

Step aside Colonel Sanders

Syd’s Fried Chicken took my Top Swoon Meal award. For $4.50 US we had a chicken leg and breast that was the equivalent of a wayward Thanksgiving turkey. A small army of vocal cats joined us in the garden area for dinner, expressing their mutual love of Syd’s chicken. It was like a Belizean take on Shake n’ Bake served with enough rice to throw at three weddings. With a petting zoo underfoot.

Reina’s Bakery was a carb-load sanctuary after a night of rum-heavy panty-rippers at the Thirsty Lizard. For $2.50US we had Bon Appetit magazine-perfect waffles with ham and (say it isn’t so!) Cheese Whiz. Kim was reduced to moaning over that brunch (mostly due to the Cheese Whiz and ham fusion, somewhat due to the panty-rippers). The syrup was dark and heavy and the punchy coffee helped realign our rum-logged heads.

Sometimes Things to Eat For Less Than a Dollar proved to be not-so-great gastro-intestinal ideas in Belize. This was discovered after buying grapefruit juice (to finish off the rocket fuel One Barrel rum we’d been nursing) and tablate from a singing Rastafarian on the bus. He hopped on as we idled at the Dangriga station with a cookie tray and a song and sold us a coaster-sized tablate for 50 cents. It was definitely a member of the fudge family, heavy on the sugar, butter and coconut frontier. Probably made with a little E.coli in less than sanitary kitchen conditions. But, c’mon, for 50 cents? It became our version of a cheap and instant cleanse when paired with the river juice probably made with ditch water.

The buses in Belize offered a convenient assortment of local ‘fast-food’ options. Vendors randomly jumped on the buses at unmarked stops along the Hummingbird Highway to hawk massive cinnamon buns, hot tamales and durosa. The durosa was another under-a-buck option that was questionable. Wrapped in a corn husk it was enticingly described as shredded plantain in a sweet coconut milk-tamale stuffing. It was more like wet barf in a corn husk. Kim wouldn’t let me finish it.

Belizean Seaweed Shake--they promise to "Bring out the man in you"

Better finds were the Irish Moss seaweed shakes at The Shak in Placencia (also available pre-made at convenience stores in plastic bottles). The shakes had an egg nog consistency and a subtle-not-sickly sweet custard taste with a good hit of nutmeg. The peanut shake was too much like Kraft peanut butter blended with table cream. Whipped a little thicker, it could have been served on a bed of noodles with cilantro as a Thai dish, not as a sweltering afternoon thirst-quencher.

Cheap eats were easily found near the beach in Caulker, allowing us to ditch our Pee-wee Herman one-speed bikes in the sand and kick off our flip flops while our order made its way to the grill. Budget Man and Fran’s pumped out hefty coconut curries and slaw (Budget Man by day, Fran by night) that were full of heat and authentic Belizean kick. Fran’s communal picnic table was never empty. Her blackboard seafood specials varied and when she sold-out, she went home.

In Hopkins Village we made dusty and dark treks to  IRIS Sunnyside cafe for golden coconut-crusted grouper and collards. (Since our return home I’ve given the coconut-crust treatment to shrimp and chicken). We subjected ourselves to the wind-whipped patio of The Barracuda Bar and Grill at Beaches & Dreams Resort (warm and boozed by the 2 for 1 sunset drinks) where we had blackened Cajun barracuda bites that we still rave about. Alaskan expats and chefs Tony and Angela Marsico also impress with killer flatbread pizzas, high octane cocktails and spoiled resort views.

Bravoo Over Proof -- bottled headache!

And the ceviche! Electric lime and generous amounts of conch and shrimp…we had it everyday.  I couldn’t get enough of the soursop juice, Marie Sharp’s grapefruit hot sauce, The Shak’s banana pancakes, mango-coconut shakes and salty plantain chips. Kate’s Bakery baseball-sized pumpkin muffins in Hopkins set the bar too high for anything I might find in Toronto. And the street hotdogs in Placencia with embarassing amounts of mayo, chopped onion and jalapenos? The jerk snapper and Dog House coconut water and rum sundowners? Unmatched.

Yeah, big sigh.

Best pit stop on the Hummingbird Highway

I drift back to Placencia and our most expensive beers of the trip ($15US) which we downed sitting all fancy and rich-like at Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn. On the flip side, I smile bigger at a flashback of our last Belikin beers which we had in plastic cups with (more!) of the infamous Belize steamie dogs at Jet’s Bar in the Belize City airport (on AOL’s Top 10 Airport Bars in the World list). I think of the charming simplicity of Mrs. Bertha’s tamale stand. The mmmm-inducing lobster and baked breadfruit at Rose’s in Caulker. The greasy and dangerously good fry-jacks (deep-fried dough) in Cahal Pech, immersed in a cacophony of tropical bird sound.

All this because I smelled a fire.

We can travel to places so easily. The best part is we can bring them back with us too.

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Passport Please | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

In Lieu of Maternity Leave: Leaving the Country

When you are a massage therapist, you are bestowed with a lot of contemplative time (unfortunately accompanied by a pan flute soundtrack). Most often I have five to six hours of uninterrupted reflection a day as my hands navigate chronically irritated muscles, scar tissue, non-turning necks and stubborn low backs. In between hypertonic hamstrings and quads (and pan flute solos), my  mental auto-pilot finds comfortable cruising altitude in rehashing bits of the books I’m reading. Currently, I’m jumping between chapters of Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round and the Frommer’s Iceland guide.

Long Way Round is the bromance McGregor wrote with fellow actor and road trip enthusiast, Charley Boorman. The motorbike fanciers took a dude trip on the backs of souped up BMW bikes from London to New York (part of a Bravo doc series in 2003). Yes, you can actually do this. It’s a mere short cut across Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Disclaimer: I’m not scheming a similar adventure (although if I did,  I would choose a BMX versus a BMW to retrace their route), but, I’m always hungry for sweaty and dusty travel memoirs. From my chaise lounge outpost in Belize I finished  Julie and Colin Angus’ Rowed Trip which chronicled the just-engaged couple’s macho and ambitious row and bike from Scotland to Syria, visiting their ancestral grounds. Before that I was flea-bitten and a little lonesome with Britta Das in Mongar, Bhutan in Buttertea at Sunrise, practically sipping the salty tea with my eyes trained on her ominous Himalayan backdrop. A few weeks ago I was hanging on to Thomas Kohnstaam’s backpack as he tromped and boozed his way through Brazil on assignment for Lonely Planet in Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?

Whether writers are sculling the edges of the Black Sea, detailing servo-booster brake and beefy Boxer engine performance off-road, emotionally excavating the isolation of monsoon season or staring at the weeping ceilings of some shit hostel with a crush of strung-out Aussies, I am there. Five pages into the Frommer’s guide,  I’m already in Iceland too (fast forward to September 2012). I make note of the Museum of Small Exhibits in Upper Eyjafjordur that exhibits master carpenter (and dare we say, hoarder?) Sverrir Hermannsson’s collections of cocktail napkins, tacks, fake teeth, hair elastics, waffle irons and (wait for it…) “pencil shavings in unbroken spirals.” There’s also a Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, Skogar Folk Museum (carved headboard and makeshift mousetrap artifacts) and of course, the Museum of the Phallus which must make every man so immensely proud of his member. There are 276 specimens on display, including last year’s donation from a 95-year-old Icelandic man, Pall Arason, whose legacy will remain erect.

I already have Kim signed up to try Icelandic classics like putrefied shark, sheep’s head jelly, cod chins and Brennivin (‘Black Death’)–a potent fermented potato mash and caraway seed hooch. Afternoons escape me as I read about the likes of the Vogafjos Cowshed Cafe in Bjarnarflag. The cafe looks directly into a milking shed (milking times are 7:30 am and 5:30pm). Warm milk is passed around and homemade mozza and feta is on the menu. “Bedrooms in old Icelandic turf farms were often placed directly over the cow stables for sharing body heat. Cow intimacy carries on at this cafe.” How great is that?

And this is how it happens. I’m massaging and traveling in my head and scheming about our next trip. The pan flute concerto is replaced by the hum of a bright and shiny revelation. The Employment Standards Act and Maternity Leave! I have zero interest in having a baby, but I like the 52 weeks off deal. In lieu of the baby part, I would like to take a baby trip. I’ve worked 600 insurable hours in 52 weeks and contribute to Employment Insurance. So, how can I sign up? I’d like 15 weeks of paid mat leave, and then would be more than happy to do the 35 week parental leave benefits. Even though it would be 55% of my average earning, it would still make for a nice weekly travel paycheque.

Better yet, I might be able to convince my employer for a “top-up” to 75% of my average pay with a guarantee that I’ll return to my job in a year. Selling points to Best Boss Ever: No future concern about needing random nights off for parent-teacher interviews, the school’s Christmas assembly, the spring performance of Macbeth or last minute can’t-come-in-today-due-to snotty noses, high fevers and snow days.

Disclaimer: I have nothing against spring performances of Macbeth, or smiley preggo moms. However, there must be some fairness here, to those who would like to skip maternity leave and leave the country instead. Because, if you do the math like me (and I skipped a few classes in my day), the average mother gets A LOT of holiday time. Generous companies that allow employees to accrue vacation time without a cap still rarely dish out more than 10 weeks holidays for 25+ years of service. Which means, a mother of one child is earning the vacation equivalent of someone who has worked at a company for, practically a lifetime. Said mother could work one year and qualify for 52 weeks off which would take the average non-mother entitled to the average 2 weeks vacation a year, a whopping 26 years of work. Two years of mat leave is 104 weeks off which equals 80 dog years and probably 230 years working for the same company (with no gold service pen).

Again, I do love mothers, but, I believe they are hogging vacay time with their womb staycations.

*Editor’s Note: By no means is this to be misconstrued as a desire for me to see firsthand the workload of the modern mother. I get it. It’s not the 52 week holiday package I would choose. And, this is also not a cry out for babysitting offers. I traded in my biological clock for a travel alarm clock long ago.

Categories: Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Geography Lessons

Yesterday I was at Hanlan’s Point, my GPS location for self-imposed exile. Here, I lie supine and allow the lake to pull my mind away. The trembling aspens rustle and cicadas buzz at a pitch that is more of an alarm to me—summer is already gathering up its carefree days in fast pursuit of the fall. The cicadas are early this year, they are usually indicative of sizzling late August afternoons where humidity hangs like a wet duvet on our shoulders.

The sun is already setting a minute earlier each night. Yesterday the sun set at 8:45, tonight, 8:44. While the sun was still blistering hot and turning the pale-skinned gingers into Maine lobsters, I snapped open a beer. The bathtub-warm Mill Street Lemon Tea beer was effervescent in my mouth, and the tepid temperature hurled me several latitudes over, to Simba beers in the Congo sun.

Two men walked past me at Hanlan’s as I skimmed the condensation off the beer can and dragged my hand across the back of my neck. The men were holding hands, laughing without inhibition, ankle-deep in the lake water. They were the colour of teak furniture. A Porter jet took to the sky with a distant growl—Boston? New York? Chicago? It banked and slid into the atmosphere and pillowy clouds beyond the aspens above my head.

I dog-eared the 37th page of The Outport People, a book about the zany brood that breathe life into a seemingly uninhabitable island called Baleena. There are no roads, no cars, no telephones. It’s Claire Mowatss best-selling memoir based on the five years she and Farley lived in Newfoundland. My mind was already in too many places to focus on Newfoundland.

Again, I disappeared to the Congo despite staring at the Toronto skyline and the sailboats skating across the surface of the water in front of me. Just one year ago I was popping the remaining Malarone anti-malarial pills out of their foil seal into my cupped hand, sad to see the numbers dwindle by day. My eyes were strained from trying to absorb all the jacaranda trees, brilliant hibiscus and termite hills as tall as flagpoles. I was desperate to take in all that surrounded me. I studied the texture of Mikai’s hair and cool skin. I searched for the history and future in her eyes that were as dark as the African coffee I sipped. The chimp I held in my arms would be a mighty adult next time I saw her. She would no longer be gently accepting spoonfuls of strawberry yogurt and sucking on warm milk sweetened with honey.  In a year, she would find her place among the troop, no longer coddled and fussed over as the babe in arms.

A year ago I was running around the fairways of the Lubumbashi Golf Course, listening to the same songs on my iPod that fuel my route through Riverdale Park and along the Don River in Toronto today. Chantal would meet me after my run and we would sit in the still of the morning, watching the copper mine bigwigs teeing off in ill-fitting plaids and stripes. More often it was the wives of the bigwigs in wide-brimmed hats and equally wide-rimmed sunglasses.

Days later, far from the idyllic morning runs around the greens with the fanfare of grinning, waving Congolese children, I was touching down in Harare, Zimbabwe and Nairobi. All that was familiar and quintissential Africa grew smaller and smaller, until it seemed like a child’s train set, not a real world, below the plane. The dust was still under my nails, in my nose, and deep in the stitching of everything I had worn.

I was leaving, again. And returning. And leaving. My brain needed sutures to hold everything I had seen together.

A  year ago, I held a hastily stamped Kenya exit visa in my hand.  My passport felt heavier with the miles that it had permitted. I landed in Toronto, elated and exhausted. I shared startling stories with my parents like a kid strung out on Halloween candy. I pulled up the photos on my laptop and sat in disbelief that I had actually been to such a place. I described each of the chimps, all 23, their names, their quirks. I watched my mom laugh until she couldn’t breathe over video footage of Mikai clobbering the kitten with a stuffed animal. I felt like I was describing someone else’s life.

We drank champagne in my parents zen backyard with Yanni and the babbling fish pond and citronella candles creating a path that replicated a parade of fireflies. The humming mosquitoes were a nuisance, but not a constant worry like their African counterparts.

I said goodbye, again, to my parents, to Dax, to the backyard that I hadn’t sat in long enough. I didn’t know what my five year plan was. Hell, I wasn’t even sure what my five day plan was.

The urban sprawl of paved Toronto lit up like the most fantastic Lite Brite display, glowing and blurring until I let myself find sleep on the flight to the west coast.

A year ago, and a week from now, I was in BC. The Fraser Valley spread wide below the plane’s wings in a neat patchwork quilt of blueberry and raspberry fields. The snow on Mt. Baker’s peak bounced the glare of the sun back onto my window.

I was coming home, but felt split between the provinces and the peace found in the burning sunsets of the Congo. Home was a sharp slap of reality. My stories stalled in the face of Mila, the most darling lab in the world. She was dying and I felt like I had five hearts beating in my chest, and still, not enough blood for all my limbs.

I unpacked from Africa, and packed again for Toronto. For good. A once familiar life and routine was dissolving and passing through my hands that could only grasp the immediate moment. I spent hours in the grass with Mila, crying like a fool, begging her to slip away. It would be okay. I’m not sure who I was reassuring– myself, or her. Both of us, I think.

I felt like I had live goldfish living in my stomach. My eyes burned like they were full of poison ivy. A year ago and a week from today, I wondered what was right. What was wrong?

Nothing felt right, even my skin felt unfamiliar over my bones. Jann reminded me, “life is fleeting.”

And I touched down at Pearson a week later. Mila died the very next day. I found solace in unexpected places, and comfort, even on the hardwood floor of Dax’s condo.

A year ago, I stood at the edge of the quarry in the Congo, knowing life was changing as fast as the landscapes would be under my feet in that week. I stood on a ferry the next day, crossing Lake Ontario to Ward’s Island with my anxious parents, who didn’t expect to see me again until Christmas. The next day I was at Hayward Lake, BC, watching Mila swim out into the cool depths for the very last time.

And I return. To Lake Ontario, with my feet in the sand. I still see Hayward Lake, I see Lake Victoria too. I see the quarry and all of the Congo. My mind revisits the year and all the geography in between. 

I am lucky not for what I have seen, but for what I have felt.  And there’s no passport to show for that. Just this.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, The Kitchen Sink | 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

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

Sliding Doors

My back feels like it has been tenderized by the ever-hostile Chef Ramsey. A week on top of an inflatable (deflatable?) air mattress simulated the experience of sleeping on a very large water wing with a pinhole. The couch accommodations at my brother’s proved that cushions will inevitably divide in the middle creating an inescapable quicksand vortex at some point in the dark of night.

But I have been sleeping without moving, until the sun pours through the windows around eight in the morning, gently roasting me underneath the duvet when I awake, my skin ready to catch on fire. My mind is exhausted from pacing. I was supposed to fly to Amsterdam yesterday, with an overnight at the Amstel Riverview Bed & Coffee before a connecting flight to Nairobi. A few weeks ago I scoured the Lonely Planet bed and breakfast listings online until I found such a gem, clicking on 109 pictures of toilets placed conveniently inches from the sinks and snapshots of the curiously frightening  floral and brass decor of over a hundred B&B’s until my pupils turned square.  But with a 20-hour flight delay, I will now arrive at 8:30 am and fly to Kenya the same day. The dreamy Amstel canal view, pancake breakfast and extensive clog shopping will have to be saved for another stay.

In a week of transient life and underwear recycling, it is a minor setback. Travelling tests not only physical flexibility, but emotional bends and stretches too.  I have visited the important branches of my family tree, seen my VIPs and returned to all my favourite Toronto haunts. There were greasy lamb burgers, cold pints on steamy patios, hot curries, sugary indulgences at Pusateri’s and many glasses of champagne.

 Hellos and goodbyes have collided, leaving my intestines in a tight French braid.

I’ve been running around sleepy Cabbagetown and along the soupy Don River thinking of how the terrain beneath my feet will change in just two days. I will leave the concrete familiarity of Toronto for the dusty roads of Lubumbashi, Congo. Here I dodge dogs in Riverdale, wearing snappy little Burberry jackets and strollers as wide as Hummers with kids sucking on Starbucks frappacinnos.  In two days there will be goats and chickens running at breakneck speeds beside me, the slow whir of curious Congolese on bikes behind me and monkeys eyeballing me from the mango trees.

I run and try not to think of the Comoros Airbus crash that snapped short the lives of 153 people. I think of the 9/11 stories of those who survived, or didn’t because of some last-minute decision to sleep-in that day, or grab a muffin on the way to work. All our decisions, non-decisions and unexpected delays change the course of our lives on a daily basis.I have always loved the movie Sliding Doors for that very concept. The 1998 film shows the unfolding life of Helen (Gwenyth Paltrow) when she catches the train, and in a parallel story—what happens when she doesn’t.

Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven played on a similar idea, but instead of time altering the path of our lives, the story suggested how certain people change our life forever. Eddie, a lonely war vet, lived what he felt was an uninspired life, fixing rides at a seaside amusement park.  When he dies on his 83rd birthday in an attempt to save a young girl’s life, he awakes in the afterlife where he meets five people who were affected, forever, by his decisions, actions, words and love.

The book naturally forces you to evaluate your life and wonder, who are my five people? And in a Sliding Doors frame of mind—what would have happened if that flight did fly out of Toronto as scheduled? Was the conversation I had at the airport with the Swedish businessman for a greater purpose? Why did we becoming engaged in conversation? Why not the guy in line behind me that was flying to Saudi?

 When I board the plane this afternoon it will be with a furry head of mixed emotions. Faces of those I love will be like a whirling dervish spinning before me. I’ll think of my dogs, of course, and all that is secure and familiar disappearing beneath me as the plane climbs in elevation.  But the pull of adventure is magnetic to me, and as easy as it would be to stay, it would be harder for me not to go.

Africa has embraced me like a lover, and her grip has followed me across the oceans. I hope you’ll follow me, vicariously, to yet another landscape, the Congo.

Come walk with me through my sliding door…

And if you haven’t heard why there’s all this talk about Africa:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Digging a Hole To China

I’m surprised Colin Angus didn’t succeed in digging a hole to China when he was a kid, because the guy is an unstoppable force. And if it were possible to find China in a sandbox, he would have done it. A few times.

Angus has defied death more than once, voluntarily putting himself in situations that test not only the human spirit, but survival itself. In 1999, Angus, South African Scott Borthwick and Australian Ben Kozel decided to take on the world’s most dangerous white water. After hiking 200 km from the Pacific Ocean to the South American Continental Divide, the team located the trickling source of the Amazon and followed it 7,200 km to the Atlantic in a rubber raft. They did it in five months with little fanfare at the end of such an epic challenge. In his book  Amazon Extreme, Angus recounts dodging bullets  spit off by the Sendero Lumineso, a left wing terrorist group in Peru as they paddled through the “Red Zone.” The gunfire was the least of their worries considering they lost all their cooking equipment when the raft turtled early in the trip. Documentary film footage shows Angus expertly using a broken shovel blade as a frying pan to cook the rice and dried beans that were their vital (and only)food source for the trip. 

hollywoodOn Monday, Colin Angus and his wife, Julie (nee Wafaei), joint recipients of the 2007 National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year  award, were at the Hollywood Theater in Vancouver to promote their upcoming Tribal Journey. The Nisga’a Tribe has invited the couple to join them on a 220 km journey from North Vancouver to Squamish this July. For Julie, the first woman to row unsupported across the Atlantic from mainland to mainland, 220 km has to be a stroll in the park. A short float in a boat.

Fittingly, Colin and Julie met at a public transit bus stop in 2003. I suppose they agreed that time was being wasted waiting for buses as the lean and driven couple decided to take on the world—propelling themselves by human power alone just one year later.

Colin Angus squeezed in a mini-trip before this, deciding to conquer the fifth longest river in the world and navigate its entirety, simply because no one else had. He convinced his fellow Amazon paddler, Ben Kozel and a documentary filmmaker from Vancouver, Remy Quinter, to join him on his next voyage. Lost in Mongolia, Colin’s second book, chronicles the harrowing float from Mongolia, north to Siberia and onward to the Arctic Ocean. It quickly becomes a desperate page turner, pulling readers chapter to chapter to find out if everyone survives. The grittiest bits of the book unfold when Colin becomes separated from Remy and Ben.  When their raft overturns in the violent waters of a flash flood, Colin attempts to retrieve a lost bag of film. Colin is swept away with the current as well. His effort is in vain and when he pulls up on shore, he is left waiting. And waiting. For 12 days, with no shirt, no shoes (and no service!), no passport, food rations or clean drinking water—Colin succumbs to a delirious state with few options or answers. Did Ben and Remy pass by him already? Was there a split in the channel that he didn’t  see?  Colin opted to continue on, alone, hoping his teammates were waiting for him in Hutag, a village 100 km downstream. Concerned nomads nourished him with yak’s milk tea and horsemeat after finding him nearly skeletal and spent.

(Colin wrote about this unexpected separation and the havoc it wreaked on his mental state in magnetic detail for Explore magazine; the article appears on the Angus Adventures site–

placardIt was in June 2004 that Colin took on the world. He began the unfathomable odyssey with journalist Tim Harvey, but ended it with his then fiancée, Julie. Before reaching Moscow, Harvey and Angus were butting heads, and much of their fiery clash is documented (from Colin’s perspective) in Beyond the Horizon. Harvey found his own way around the world, choosing to travel through Africa and South America before his return.  He joined Angus from Vancouver to Alaska and across the angry Bering Sea to the unwelcoming embrace of the dark Siberian winter where they rode bikes across the frozen tundra to Moscow. A wind chill of -30 was considered a pleasant day.  Julie arrived for the last and critical leg from Moscow to Lisbon by bike, followed by four months at sea, crossing the unfriendly Atlantic (over 10,000 km). But they didn’t stop there. Colin and Julie biked from Costa Rica to Vancouver, bringing Colin’s adventure to a close after a jaw-dropping 43,000 km. The first human-powered circumnavigation of the world title belonged to Colin Angus. Rowing across two oceans and trekking through 17 countries and surviving every possible mishap, starvation, hallucination-inducing thirst, altitude sickness, trench foot, a urethra stricture that required surgery and a slight case of cabin fever.

So, how do you pack for two years, for the landscapes that will take you from temperatures of bone-shattering -50 to a blistering heat of +40? In part, they packed 4,000 chocolate bars, 72 bike inner tubes, 250 kg dried food, 31 dorado fish and 80 kg of clothing from bikinis to ski gear. And somehow, in the middle of Atlantic, between storm fronts, Colin managed to make birthday pancakes for Julie with strawberry jam and whipped cream.

The documentary Beyond the Horizon left me slightly claustrophobic even in the great dimensions of the Hollywood Theater. Colin and Julie spent four months in a specially designed row boat in a cabin that appeared to be smaller than a public washroom stall. Due to the close quarters of their cabin, they actually fashioned protective head gear out of stuffed nylons to prevent head injury from the turbulent storm waters.  There were relentless hurricanes that created swells reminiscent of The Perfect Storm—which didn’t instill as much fear as Julie expressed when they were nearly clipped by a freighter ship due to their diminutive size, bobbing about in the Atlantic unseen.

Colin apologized at the beginning of the double-screening of Amazon Extreme and Beyond the Horizon for the amateur camera work, but the sometimes shaky camera and dialogue (that often gets blown away with the high winds  found at 18,000 feet elevation in the Andes) created two documentaries with a focus on the emotions and energy of the teams–not the budget. I was glad to finally have the visuals to accompany the  books I have read with white- knuckled anxiety over the years.

And there’s more. Julie has published her own account of the Atlantic exploit in Rowboat in a Hurricane. Written with a female spin and the mind of a microbiology grad, her book should prove to be as compelling as her counterpart’s. 

And still more…. in September 2008, Colin and Julie traced their ancestral roots and rowed from northern Scotland to Syria. This was a mere 7,000 km, seven month trip through an interconnected route of canals and roads (where they pulled out  bikes from their amphibious vessels) across 13 countries. Rowed Trip, a book they co-wrote is to be released this fall.

And I thought my two and a half hour commute into Vancouver to see the documentaries was epic—4km on foot, 70km on Greyhound (with a sketchy seat mate), Skytrain, public transit bus and on foot again to the theater on West Broadway with a buttery spinach pie and hockey puck of honey halva in my hand from the Greek bakery.

The question is, how will Colin and Julie keep topping themselves? I can imagine their morning conversation over just-picked dandelion tea in Victoria.

Colin—“What should we do today, honey?”
Julie—“I dunno. How ‘bout we bike to Winnipeg for dinner?”

Colin—“There’s that place in Portland we’ve talked about, you know, with the all-you-can-eat soft-shelled crab on Friday nights?”

Julie—“Okay, but only if we can row back on the Pacific, I’ve got yoga at noon tomorrow with Jamie.”

Really, I can’t imagine them sitting in for a quiet night of take-out pizza and a movie. How sloth-like.  How unadventurous.

Prepare to be stunned by the inspirational stories of Colin and his wiry match, Julie.  The obstacles they battle head-on showcases their raw courage, titanium nerves and enviable determination.

Reading about the vicious tropical storms, being lost, lurking crocodiles, cracked and bleeding lips, Siberian snow hitting bare skin like knives—all of this will take away your right to ever complain again.

And their message to the audience?

Ride a bike. Not necessarily 7,000 km, but at least to the bloody corner store.

cropped angusFor inspiration visit–

For more about Tribal Journeys: woman

Categories: Flicks and Muzak, On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why All the Talk About Africa?

It was past midnight last May when I was waiting for an epiphany. I had been dreaming of hummingbirds biting me, which I learned later was a sign of restlessness. I had no idea at that time that such restlessness would see me flying to Africa in September.

The semester at Douglas College had just drawn to a close, and I was wondering what I could do to marry my interests of creative writing and my passion for animals. A colleague had landed a cool copywriter gig at the Telus World of Science in Vancouver. That’s when I realized that there were broader possibilities out there—and I Googled the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).

I scrolled through the job postings and randomly applied for a position designing an environmental studies-based curriculum, despite being totally unqualified. I thought of Peter Mansbridge and his early days, working as a clerk at an airport in Manitoba. The airport announcer had called in sick, and with no short notice replacement available, the supervisor asked Mansbridge to announce a delayed flight. A local radio station manager was in the wings, heard his voice and recruited Mansbridge on the spot. He was shuffled to CBC radio’s northern service shortly thereafter. This is how things happen.

Chimp at Ngamba Island Sanctuary, Entebbe, Uganda

With an urge to do something bigger and stretch my mind into a downward dog of its own, I sent off the application with my beefed-up resume and then looked for Uganda on the globe. At that point, I had no idea where in Africa it sat. The curriculum designer position was for six months, beginning in July. When April and May rolled by, I assumed that the position had been filled.

During the last week of June I received an email from JGI Uganda. A posting that my skill set would be better suited for had become available. Would I be interested in editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda? As soon as possible?

It’s no secret that I find great difficulty in decision-making. Choosing between the coconut curry stew and the lemongrass chicken at New Saigon is agonizing. Do I want a skim latte or a mochacinno? A Sidekick or a VW Golf? How was I supposed to make a snap decision like going to Africa, as soon as possible? Sending off an application in May was cerrtainly spontaneous, but my nature is to brood, fret, think, re-think and create pro and con lists as thick as a phone book. God, really? Me? Uganda? I hadn’t told anyone about applying for the job…

And then I was there (after much see-sawing), from September 2008, to January 2009. The Tribes and Totems of Uganda project was a fascinating project, and the pile of 500 submissions from local elementary students soon narrowed into a comprehensive collection. The learning curve was exactly what my restless self needed. When I roared through that assignment and found myself with two months left in my volunteer stint, Debby Cox, then director of JGI, asked if I could draw primates. I guessed yes, I probably could. My days were soon consumed by designing a colouring book on the primates of Uganda. When an employee of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation came to visit, I was suddenly drawing the primates of Rwanda to be used in a colouring book format for them.

I was in my element, drawing bushbabies and monkeys all day. What could be more fulfilling? Well, I will find out this July.

On safari in Queen Elizabeth Park (Uganda) at Christmas, I met Chantal Jacques, co-director of J.A.C.K. (Jeunes Animaux Confisques au Katanga—Young Animals Confiscated in Katanga), a refuge centre for orphaned chimps confiscated by the Ministry of the Environment in the Congo. Chantal was interested in hearing more about my work with JGI and we exchanged emails as our tour groups were heading in different directions. What I didn’t expect a few months later was her email asking if I might like to visit the Congo in July and volunteer for a month.

This decision came quicker, yes. Yes!

Mac, at Ngamba Island

The opportunity to volunteer at J.A.C.K. will allow direct contact with the chimps, unlike my JGI experience. Chantal has pre-warned me of early mornings, preparing milk for the chimps. The house where I will be staying has no water (yet), electricity is dodgy, and Internet connections are patchy at best. And there is no postal service. Did I really want to come?

I was already knee-deep in my Congo research. Reading the refuge blog pulled me in even further. I have learned that the refuge has nearly insurmountable barriers to conquer. The Swahili word for wildlife,“nyama,” is the same term used for “meat.” Great apes and primates continue to be killed as a food source in the lucrative bushmeat trade, and as ancestral custom. One Congolese tribe believes that crushing and cooking the bones of an ape will allow the child who drinks the powder the strength of the chimpanzee that was killed. Infant chimps are smuggled by members of the Congo Army, high ranking Congolese and by request for expatriates wanting a darling little pet. Ten chimpanzees usually die for every baby taken as the family struggles and fights to defend the infant from poachers.

Franck and Roxanne Chantereau, co-directors of J.A.C.K. estimate that chimp trafficking in the last 10 years in the Congo has resulted in the death of over 4,000 chimpanzees. Still, chimps are found being sold for small change on roadsides in Lubumbashi. J.A.C.K., a self-funded NGO was started in April 2006 in response. The refuge, located in the Lubumbashi Zoo, was created to provide a safe space for orphaned chimps to live, as they wouldn’t have the ability to survive in the wild.

Education is key focus of the the refuge, and their accessibility (no admission fee) helps expose locals to the consequence of poaching, eating bushmeat and smuggling. There are plans to build a visitor’s centre with informative displays showing the correlation between local lifestyle and the impact on the future of chimpanzees in the Congo, where 40% of the remaining African population lives.

Even though my parents and partner aren’t exactly doing cartwheels about me travelling to the Congo, they see the lure. Of course they worry that I will pull a Meryl Streep and become an Out of Africa story, deciding to stay, buying myself a nice coffee plantation to live on. But that was Karen Blixen’s story, and I have my own to write!

* To immediately transport yourself to Africa, check  the “Into and Out of Africa” category on my site. Here, in chronological order, you can travel with me all over again beginning with From Your African Correspondent, Jules Torti (September 20, 2008) to Stories From Across the Water (January 23, 2009), which was posted shortly after my return to Canada.

For more information on J.A.C.K.:

J.A.C.K. Blog:

Jane Goodall Institute Africa programs:

Categories: Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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