31 January 2014

And ain't it grand (Part 2)

And now here I am, back in Bunia again. With cars that don’t work (I ran into the last logs expat leaving the country at the airport and he warned me that one of the cars doesn’t have working lights, the breaks are giving out on a second, and the third, well, he just said not to drive the third), internet that barely functions, assorted insect infestations (ants in the bathroom, cockroaches in the kitchen, something that looks vaguely maggoty building a tunnel up the wall in my room, and a massive spider web in the avocado tree. Perhaps not a web. It is both too gargantuan and too messy to be a web. So more like a spider hive in the avocado tree. While we haven’t yet seen one of the hive residents, I always pause before walking under it and then scamper quickly past, awaiting the day many-legged death comes for me from above), a malfunctioning sink that periodically turns into a geyser for no apparent reason, and every other wonderful thing about this place.

Honestly, the cars have probably presented the most adventures since I’ve come back, if by adventures I mean mostly likely thing to kill or maim me in the near future. I almost got stuck in a ditch because of having to reverse down an abruptly impassable road, at night, with no back-up lights. Another one of our fleet, which apparently has some sort of ignition problem would not, for the life of me, turn over, leaving me inching down a hill toward a shop-shack and desperately trying to get it to start before I (hopefully gently) tipped over the shop and its occupants. Myself and some colleagues found ourselves driving back through town the car with no headlights after a perfectly lovely sundowner (it was the only car we could get to start, and by the time we remembered which one it was, it was too late!). I spend the ride hanging out the window with a 50€ flashlight in my hand to try and provide some illumination/warning for oncoming pedestrians and praying that we didn’t get stopped by the cops – it’s a much more fraught proposition here than in the US – or, you know, hit someone. Then there was the time when a piece of the engine quite literally fell out while I was driving. The car that is generally agreed to be the best (it’s the one with the ignition problem. You learn not to park on a hill) and is really lovely to drive has recently began determinedly smelling of Cheetos and feet. I feel like one of the hapless competitors in the Great Race who wasn’t dressed in black or white or named Maggie DuBois.

Not all the travel-related news from Bunia is negative, though. Following a Presidential visit that I missed by a day (and, stars, would that have been fun to discuss!) there has been a flurry of construction activities, especially along the main road. Seeing as how the Province itself has no money, there is a well-informed rumour floating about that the work is being financed by a Lebanese gold company. Oh, man, did the assumptions get ugly fast with that one (offering mining concessions as payment for infrastructure work has a long and storied tradition in the Congo that has almost always ended badly for the country). Political ickiness aside, this development means that there are suddenly, and without warning, massive piles of dirt and ripped-up trenches where once there were bumpy, if passable roads (one such pile is how I nearly ended up in a ditch at 11pm). Once construction is completed (and they’ve only managed to do the main road, despite prepping/rendering impassable at least a tenth of the roads in Bunia), it makes the dust worse and traffic move a lot faster (those two things are very much related, and both a bit of a bugger when you’re predominately a pedestrian). They are also building a rather lovely sidewalk, with somewhat mixed results. It’s unmortared, for instance, and seems prone to falling apart. Moreover, people are finding it to be continent parking, which…sort of defeats the purpose. More recently, one of my go-to side roads was blacklisted because the UN discovered a bunch of mines left over from the war. It’s good to be home!

I think I’ve mentioned before that the dry season is upon us with a miserable vengeance. But even as we start every morning by brushing a thick coating of dust off of our computers and chairs and even each other, depending on the level of flexibility in your personal bubble, many of my colleagues have expressed worry about the US held, as it and Canada are, in the tyrannical clutches of Jack Frost and his frozen-hellish Polar Vortex. Almost every day, someone sweetly asks after both my family and the poor (updated this morning – they asked about Atlanta and their TWO INCHES OF SNOW. Pull it together, Atlanta). They are deeply, deeply concerned about how the impoverished in the West are handling the winter. One inquired as to where they picked up their firewood when the weather ‘was not conducive’ or how it was for them, walking on ice. It’s interesting how we assume that markers of wealth and poverty are universal. Here, even the very poor have houses (for the most part. The urban poor – like street children – are another matter), but often lack shoes, cloathing, access to water, etc. This last can be especially problematic during the dry season, when even contaminated sources of water can evaporate.

On a positive note, as I write this, we’re enjoying our first proper rain since my return. It’s cool and the sound of the drops on the tin roof makes a soothing soundtrack to my work, undercut with the percussive hits of the thunder. I am managing to ignore the fact that the water pouring off the roof is, and has been, for like 15 minutes, the colour of weak tea. The ground is so parched that there is no mud.

Another plus to the rain is that it has temporarily broken up the second day of student protests taking place catty-corner to our office. The students are demonstrating against the fact that their teachers are on strike. For their part, the teachers are on strike because the bank through which they are paid has a two dollar fee for every transfer. Now, two dollars is a lot when your pay check is 50$, but I still found it an interesting series of events to lead to shouted accusations of thievery for days on end.

It’s a minor irritant, though, when compared to our neighbours at the living compound. Have I mentioned them before? Our Lady of Night Owls and Early Birds? I kid, of course – I have no idea what demonic presence birthed from the loins of Belezbub and an insomniac these people pray to that demands that they hold their loudest services between 11pm and 6am. I don’t even think my objections would be so strident were it not for two things: (1) the irregularity of the services; and (2) the tone-deafness of the pastors. Without either one of the elements, I might well be able to consign the supplications to the background, as one might when living over a bar or near to an airport. When, however, you are awoken from a dead sleep after days of peaceful dreams by an Amen that is chanted as a sort of guttural scream and goes on for hours, well, it’s just hard to snuggle back down into your pillows. If you manage to, your ensuing dreams might well make you wish that you hadn’t. Thank all that’s holy that I’m off the Larium.