24 August 2013

Don't judge a town by the threats to overrun it

Once we were wheels up, it took less time to make it back to Goma than it did to drive to the airport. In a first, I took some flack from the DGM with regard to my visa. The officer claimed that it was invalid because it lacked an expiration date. I have to admit that he is, strictly speaking, accurate. My visa has no end date. However, it also clearly states that it is good for three years after the date of issue, and that is written on there about seven times. When I pointed this out, he harrumphed and consulted and harrumphed some more and then let me through. Which is pretty much all they ever do (on a side note, even if it was invalid, what exactly does he expect me to do? The things are issued in Kinshasa by his own department). It’s not just the passport – travel within the DRC is an exercise in bureaucratic inanities and red tape. One must, at all times, have readily available your yellow fever card, Go Pass (this is a bit like an exit visa, but for cities. You have to cough up 10 USD every time you take a domestic flight and 50 USD for an international one), ordre de mission, the whole nine yards. If you fail to have all I’s dotted and T’s crossed (preferably double-crossed and validated through two different offices), you open yourself for brides. As if demanding that every NGO worker have to register – and pay associated fee – every time they operate in a new territory isn’t bribe enough! Yes. You pay when you enter and again when you leave. My recent trips have cost more than 100 USD in these DGM fees alone.

But I really shouldn’t kvetch – my supervisor and frequent traveling companion has it even worse. She recently ordered a new passport, as the old one had run out of pages. Again, though, our visas have to be processed in Kinshasa and it might well take as many as three months for them to transfer the active visa to the new passport. Therefore, she is now traveling with both the old and new passports, and the DGM has a conniption every time. Most of the officers claim that she is traveling on two travel documents, one of which is expired. One even threatened to hold her in the airport. Technically, neither passport is expired, but one sly DGM suggested that she just tape the old and new passports together. That way, they are to be counted as a single document, and you can apply the visa in the former to the expiration date in the latter. Even more absurd that the suggestion itself? The fact that it seems to work! Or at least mitigate their suspicion and tendency to overreact.

Given how much we’ve been bopping around, we were ready with sheaf of documents in-hand when we approached the immigration desk. When they utterly ignored our yellow fever card, we were a bit taken aback and asked if we didn’t have to present them for inspection. The DGM (the selfsame one who wasn’t happy with my visa) looked over at the sanitation desk to his left, manned only by a cockroach, and shrugged. ‘Ils ne sont pas ici’. I guess not then. It’s all such a farce – nothing more than a puppet show intended to preserve the semblance of governmental control in a country where even the most basic social services are provided by the international community. 

This will be apostasy for most familiar with Congo, but I think I prefer Goma to Bukavu. It lacks the latter’s terraced elegance, certainly, but it still appeals to me more. I’ve tried to explain why to myself, but I can’t quite seem to put my finger on it. Perhaps it is because it wasn’t so built up in my mind, with everyone insisting that it’s paradise (Bukavu was a bit like Tir Asleen, to be honest). However, I suspect it also has something to do with the lava - the enormous chunks of lava piled up like the toys of a careless, giant child. It somehow makes the city seem younger, more raw. Where the red Bunia/Bukavu dirt coats everything, leeching colour out of it, the black Goma dirt makes them pop all the more. The green of the abundant foliage and red and purples and yellows of the flowers all take on a new vibrancy in Goma. Even the trash looks richer! That said, it is awfully hazy – the water and sky run together so the horizon vanishes into a stretch of grey-blue that is both flat and endlessly deep. I could barely make out the volcano.

There are certainly other, more tangible reasons why this city appeals to me. For one, the statuary is more interesting. In Bukavu, the heart of the city is dominated by an enormous, unruly roundabout that orbits a similarly massive stature of well-muscled half-naked men proudly holding symbols of liberation, most prominently a torch and an AK. Meanwhile, the circle nearest our Goma hotel sports animals including a gorilla reclining on a rock chaise and an elephant splayed out like it just lost its footing on the proverbial banana peel. My favourite by far is the ode to the Chukuda (in my head, I keep hearing this as chupacabra, which causes me to giggle at totally odd moments). It’s a blend of skateboard and wheelbarrow that is wholly unique to Goma. In the statue, a golden young man (again, super fit and shirtless) pushes one that is laden with the world. Deep, masons of Goma! 

One always hears how dangerous this city is (in fact, I seem to remember promising my mother that I wouldn’t go to Goma. Sorry, Mom!), but we walked around as freely as we did in Bukavu and much more so than we do in Bunia. The biggest risk we faced was a tie between spraining an ankle on the terrible…sidewalk in not the word. Maybe strip of lava too rocky and broken to drive on? and the motorbikes when the non-sidewalks vanish, to the extent that they ever existed, and you walk directly on the road. While there were certainly more beggars in Goma, there were also fewer people asking us muzungus specifically for handouts. There were, however, also more cat calls, as well as men making kissy noises and a strange sssst sound. And children just seem inclined to follow you about. A group of kids playing a game of hoop stick trailed us for a good 20 minutes. Finally, my boss snapped at them in Dutch and they scattered. 
The sense of security might have had to so with the fact that there were soldiers and UN peacekeepers everywhere you turned. Granted, this wasn’t always the most comforting sight, especially given the tendency of the FARDC to wear belts of bullets casually looped around their necks like scarves.

Indeed, remember me waiting for some gunplay to break out? It was because, as we left our hotel early Sunday morning to attend Mass at Notre Dame du Lac (Cistercian nuns!), we were sidelined by a fleet of probably around 30 motobikes, each with 2-3 cops on the back, the butts of their rifles and assault weapons resting on their thighs. We considered for a few minutes whether it was worth it to soldier on as we waited for the dust to settle. We had decided God would applaud discretion over piety this once by the time the last motorbike passes us, it’s bemused brace of passengers putting me in mind of a certain Blake Edward’s zebra. I wondered if their commander would have their stripes for this.

Apparently it was just a lot of sound and fury. Some people had started stoning a UN convoy and, though it never amounted to anything beyond that, they’re on high alert and prepared for riots such that even small incidences result in heavy deployments, road closures, and evacuation of UN VIPs by helicopter (all of which happened while I was sitting by the lake and smelling the flowers. I felt wildly disconnected from the truth of Goma). 
Ultimately, though, we did find ourselves once again at the airport (where we had to pay 50 cents for the privilege of using a bathroom that lacked both toilet seats and paper. The last time someone tried to make me pay for the bathroom, I was a Harold’s of London). And, frankly, it was about time. My cloathes were all well-past the point of needing a wash and I was eager to see my friends and colleagues in Bunia. Most of all, though, I was looking forward to an absence of meetings and getting back to my ‘real’ job. In order to shave a few days off the trip, we had briefly entertained the notion of taking a local airline, CAA, as the humanitarian airline doesn’t fly all that often. Do you also recall the crashed planes that still line the Goma runway? Nearly all belonged to CAA. When we shared our fledgling plan with one of my other colleagues, it was met with a horrified ‘but you’re too young to die!’ I don’t know about that, but I am too financially savvy to risk my life for 400 USD for a 30 minute flight when it’s cheaper to hang out at the hotel for two more days and take the humanitarian airline that actually does maintenance on its planes. 
I’m leaving out loads – like the inter-NGO sniping, the woman who is trying to rehabilitate child soldiers through praise dance (life skills and vocation trainings are so passé), our lingering suspicion that our hotel was in fact a super classy brothel, and how I somehow ended up acting out the inter-testamental period with cardboard swords, table cloths, Mardi Gras beads …but I’ve got to get ready for my safari, and I really am trying to shoot for brevity. Next time – gorillas!