01 November 2014

Bicycle built for two

I cannot, for the life of me, recall if we had a Halloween party in Bunia last year. One imagines not – it’s not terribly big in Europe – though the expat community does seem to favour events wherein they can put on some costumes of dubious quality and dance and drink, so you’d think it would be right up our alley. At least I can rest assured that no one is planning on attending any potential party as a sexy Ebola nurse. That said, if they were feeling up to it, MSF could probably play an excellent joke on us – and indeed, all of Bunia, if they opted to come in full quarantine mode.

There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a few other in which we feel the shadow of Ebola stretching out its boney, bloody fingers (boo!). I’ve been getting a really fun daily update from CRS (no idea how I got on that particular email chain), for example, that gives not only all the latest stats from the Congo outbreak, but also those in West Africa (and now Dallas and Spain and New York. It’s comprehensive!), as well as what new travel bans are in place (another NGO workers was recently refused entrance into the Seychelles because she was traveling from Congo, which seems remarkably short-sighted. Did they let in the people she travelled with? What if she’d sneezed on a flight attendant?). From a friend at MSF, I’ve learned all the gruesome details about what an Ebola clinic looks like, and it’s…not pretty. In their training materials, even regarding a ‘moderate mortality’ outbreak like that in Congo (only just over 50 per cent), they flat out note that treating patients amounts to hospice care. Really, really ginger and profoundly sanitised hospice care. If you do pull through, the virus can stay in your body for over a month, so all health care workers and survivors are supposed to remained quarantined for a bit. One of my friend’s colleagues, who has a reputation as something of a Casanova, was apparently ready to volunteer to work the outbreak (as it seemed quite heroic) until he heard this piece of information. He then demanded to know that, should he contact and survive Ebola, would it be possible to, during this quarantine period when the virus was still lurking in his system and he could not visit any of his numerous lady friends, re-infect himself via masturbation? A question for the ages, friends!

Far from isolating myself for fear of exotic diseases, I have been actively trying to get out and about in last few months. The end of my mission is rapidly approaching, so I’m trying to soak up my remaining time in Bunia. The same MSFriend recently (ha – he’s been working on it for the better part of his mission) rehabilitated a tandem bike. By which I mean he unearthed two, damaged bikes and soldered them together, making possibly the heaviest bike in the world. Now that it’s working, at least after a fashion, we’ve spent the last few weekends tooling around (they also have a fleet of single-rider bikes, so while the tandem was yet under construction, I would often hitch a ride on the back of the standard bike, sitting side-saddle with a hand lightly – and sometimes not so lightly – placed on my pilot’s waist for stability. I had to hop off whenever the road deteriorated to much and be careful to not let my skirts get caught in the spokes. I often felt like the eldest daughter in a 50s sitcom, riding on the bike of her steady on the way to the malt shop. If only it weren’t for the fact that the malt shop was covered in barbed wire and guarded by an APC…). On our last ride, the bike only broke down three times. So I thought I would invite you on a bike tour of Bunia with me!

This past weekend, we were lucky to have a perfect riding day, as we’re in the final, through very damp, throws of the rainy season. The tandem takes a certain level of coördination, as the engineering was perhaps a bit spotty. The back pedals hang low and will become lodged in any deep rut one encounters, not only stopping the bike dead but also dislodging the second gear chain and possibly even popping off a pedal in its entirety. Which wouldn’t normally be a problem, but Bunia roads are more rut than not. At any rate, though it always takes us a few attempts to work out our rhythm, we managed to get off and riding. Sunday mornings are my favourite time to be out around town, as there is less traffic than at almost any other time of the week. As we rode along, passing families decked out in their (often matching) Sunday best, strains of various hymns could be snatched from all sides, blending together in an unexpected (and mostly harmonious) symphony of worship.

Unfortunately, our first stop of the ride came just outside of the more exuberant though less in-tune congregations when my shoelace became caught in the pedal and snapped. My shoes have had a difficult time of things lately. Between the rain and the bike, it’s a bit of a marvel that I have any shoes left at all, now that I think about it. Bits flake and peel off my sandals like the appendages on a damp zombie. Which is evocative, yes, but somewhat less than comfortable. All but one pair are currently held together with epoxy and Medair-branded tape. I often give my shoes – and the tape that holds them together – pep talks. Okay, guys, I’m really sorry for wearing you in the rain, but we only have 3(!) more months. You can do this!

After dislodging my lace and resetting the chain, we managed to make it to the market without any additional mishaps. Our first stop was to visit the Bike Man; the tandem’s creator and he are on chummy terms, as the MSFer has been coming here for all the necessary odds and ends to create and maintain this twee Frankenstein. This weekend, the plan was to add a rack to the back of the bike so that things might be carried (optimistically, a picnic basket). While the Bike Man himself was professionally unimpressed – so it’s working? Ça va, ça va - others were more willing to be effusive. People cluster around it at every stall or let their fingers drift along it gently as we passed. One man clucked at how clever it was – those muzungus, always ahead of us! Many ask my friend how he made it, and while answering that he did it himself is not totally accurate, it is the simplest explanation (he conceptualized it, then convinced another expat with a background in deep sea welding to help, and when that individual left for the field, talked their staff welder – yes, MSF can afford a staff welder – to finish the job in exchange for a few beers. When things got really tricky, they went to an actual bicycle repair man just outside of town). He always fields requests to purchase it, one even as high as 50USD. That person had more money than sense, frankly.

At one point, holding the bike as my friend haggled over pagne prices – it’s not the most manoeuvrable thing in among the labyrinthine stalls and mud of the marketplace – I saw a pagne covered in sparkplugs. It was the classic 6V pattern introduced to me by a former MK during a dinener that somehow morphed into a master class on pagne. Apparently, most pagne designs come from a few speciality European houses and have, for the past 80 some-odd years. These fabrics, sold almost exclusively in Africa, can cost upwards of 100USD for the traditional length of six yards. On the plus side, during our discussion, the self-same humanitarian was wearing a shirt that had been made for her mother in Congo in the early 1970s and it still looked brand-new, so the real stuff is acres better than the knock-offs the rest of us are wearing. Back to the 6V, though, the MK had read, in a terrifically dated and racist travel book, that, when the first cars (which had six cylinders) were imported to Congo in the 1950s and 1960s, they were an overt status symbol and accessible to only the super-wealthy. ‘Six sparkplugs’ became a national catchphrase identifying any number of things – though women especially – as lux, classy. It’s like saying she’s a 10. Also, six vougie sounds better in Congo French that you might imagine. The most trend-setting of the fashion houses – a Dutch outfit called Vlisco – turned the 6V motif into a pagne. Though they might have intended it to be a courting gift – hey, baby, you’re 6V! – women apparently began buying it for themselves, as a way to affirm their own beauty and desirability (that’s right – I’m a 6V and I know it!). Though it’s no longer so much in fashion, it’s retains an aura of women’s sexual autonomy and empowerment. If only it weren’t so revolting…

I also had to pick up some food odds and ends for the house. Medair has a hard and fast rule that they will not reimburse without a receipt. It’s not always worth fighting for, as ost of the mamans on the market don’t offer receipts and only sign what you write out for them under duress. In some ways, I understand their bafflement – they think asking for a receipt for 500FC (0.54USD) worth of stuff is nuts, and when it comes down to it, so do I. But it does add up eventually, and then it becomes something of an adventure. This time around, and at the explicit request of a frittata-craving colleague, I stopped by the chicken men and requested 40 eggs. They didn’t believe that I needed so many, but I stood firm. Next, I asked for a facture – standard Congo French for a receipt (French French do not understand this term and will stare at you like you are an idiot if you ask for one). They had no idea what I was talking about. So asked for an addition, which is the ‘real’ word. Note to self – when people for whom French is possibly a fourth language do not understand my own pigeon French, going even more correct is perhaps not the right answer. Every time I asked for an addition, they would say sure – 350FC. Which would irk me – seriously? You’re charging me for a receipt? They, in turn, would also get annoyed and then say that they had already given me 40! I know, I would say – and now I need a receipt. It took me a while to understand that they thought I was asking for an additional egg. It was a bit of a who’s on first moment for me (my very fluent friend did not join me, as there was no way he was getting the tandem all the way back to the poultry section of the market). I ended up digging an old bank receipt out of my wallet and using it as a prop. Ohhh – a note of exchange! Yeah, we can do that. It is magic – best receipt I’ve ever gotten.

It reads:

On this day, the 2 of September, 2014, We the egg merchants of the central market of Bunia have sold 40 eggs (forty) to Medair for the price of 14,000 FC. This is at the quoted price of 350FC per egg.

Leaving the market, we were trailed by incredulous laughter and shouts of ‘double velo’. People on motos loaded with five children – the youngest hanging out over the back wheel, tied to its sibling – looked at us in bemused wonderment, which we tried not to return. Standards of normal are different here.

We paused at the French NGO Solidarité to visit a friend. The nature of humanitarian work is such that people pass fairly quickly in and out of your life and though you can manage to form some (hopefully) lasting bonds, most often you make a connection with people for a number of months, share a few funny or strange or touching moments, and then recall them with great fondness in fleeting instances of déjà vu. As a community, we had not so long ago seen off a colleague at Sol. It was over a really lovely and subdued dinner, sitting around in the waning twilight, that I had found myself discussing what makes a hipster with a bunch of French folks. With an amusement that was difficult to share, I tried to define the term to a group in which at least two individuals were sporting plaid shirts and there were skinny jeans all around. The only light was from the stars and two battered lanterns. Our food had all been organic and locally produced and we were drinking off-market beer. All told, it was a like a hyper-whimsical hipster castle in Spain. My French colleagues decided, however, that there were no hipsters about as there was a shocking lack of pompadours and beards. Apparently, a true hipster must have facial hair. No word on what defines hipsterdom among the non-folically blessed. The hipster brand is an odd one. We also discussed cartoons, and I learned that, in France, Pepe Le Pew is Italian.

Sol is also one of the most consistent of my secondary yoga sites. I was obligated to find a new site for my yoga class, you see, after my housemates kicked us out (which is hilarious to me, as at least two or three of them come to any given class). Now we have something of a rotating schedule of places to hold the class, depending on who is on mission or holiday. One of these yoga field trips included directions to turn left just before the coffins, which might well be be the most evocative set of directions I’ve ever given.

We hopped back on the tandem (remember the tandem? The letter is about the tandem) for a bit longer, only to eventually make our way over to my own home compound for lunch and repairs. The Medair house has been pretty lively lately, which is a bit usual for us, hosting cook outs and volleyball tournaments and movie nights. At the moment of our arrival, some of my teammates were engaged in an impromptu jam session, using a battered communal guitar and piano salvaged and rebuilt by our logistics coördinator and strung and tuned by the WASH programme manager. The latter, a charming Italian man, is usually far out in the bush, on his project sites for weeks at a time, and when he comes back to Bunia for a break, his level of pleasure at being around other expats is both charming and a little manic. We’ve actually had team sing-alongs almost every night since he’s been back). He boasts a surprising repertoire of cowboy songs and his rendition of Proud Mary is quite rousing, considering he only knows about 1/3 of the words and mangles the rest.

Full and fixed, we set off from Medair on a route that was vaguely inclined toward MSF. We cycled past the new standard hangout spot (as MSF is not allowed to patronise the UN watering hole), Garden Restaurant Multi-Cuisine. When Garden first opened last summer, Medair staff had hoped for great - well, mediocre - things. Its spacious grounds (the name it well-earned) and generous menu positioned it as a welcome alternative to MONUSCO House. Though our initial experience was somewhat less than promising (we did discover that the best way to successfully order at Garden is to ignore the menu and ask what it is they actually have), it’s come a long way in terms of service and food quality. We now only expect to wait for 1-2 hours for food, and it’s almost always what we ordered. To pass the time, we often play Uno and Ebola-themed Scrabble (in which you get a double word score for anything pertaining to Ebola. I once crushed with Zaire – an Ebola word twice over! – which, interestingly enough, would not count in a normal game).

Most recently, our games have not been necessary, as the obliging Garden staff has even begun dinner theatre! During a recent team outing, populated by the lion's share of Medair's women and Thomas, we were gently accosted by one Teenus Baby Official and his sidekick, no-English Williams. Teenus was insistent that we should join him inside, as he explained that he was a musician from Kampala, though originally from Congo, and felt that his table should be graced by such a cadre of lovely ladies. The Medair team thought that the veracity of his introduction merited the same and hoped he was pleased to meet Brenda, Carla, Els, Connie, and Louise (in place of Shétu, Riët, Elseline, myself, and Lydia). Thomas vanished as soon as they showed for the latrine in a stunning display of French gallantry. He never returned during subsequent events, so we naturally assumed that he’d fallen in and the fumes had rendered him unconscious. We demurred and settled in to wait for our food, which seemed to be taking a long time, even by Garden's generous standards. All was made clear when the friendly gents spilled outside the restaurant's back door, pursued by the waiter, bartender, manager, and possibly chef. While the show was in Swahili, we still got the gist, especially once they called in supporting cast in the form of local cops. Teenus transitioned from leading man to quirky supporting case, Williams took the role of rebel action hero and climbed over the latrine to leap over barbed wire and escape into the night (we had hoped that he might rescue Thomas, but no such luck).

Just past Garden is yet another local haunt – Rezac. Instead of late-night beers, this tends to be where I head for post-Mass breakfasts, where, depending on my compatriots in prayer that weekend, we discuss Rastafarianism and statelessness and conservation efforts in Nepal. Once, we even stole the proprietor’s notebook to hold a lion-sketching competition. Of my French Mass-mates, one showed surprising competency and drew his as a cartoon in a business suit. The other’s was, in a word, bad. Mine was a more realistic though hurried sketch. But their local national colleague, Max…I don’t know how to describe Max’s drawing. It transcended it’s childishness into something deeply primitive, yes, but also moving. It was full body, in profile. After a failed correction, its front left paw faced both forward and backward. The tail thrust out like a spear. The mane licked its back like flames. The face was undeniably human. I found it beautiful and myself deeply affected. Tanguy laughed so hard he brayed like a donkey and couldn’t breathe and almost had yogurt come out his nose. The waitress pronounced it her favourite of the drawings.
This was not the lion
At any rate, it was just beyond Rezac that the tandem again paused for repairs. As MSFriend bantered/haggled moto technicians into fixing his contraption, I listened to a football game in the distance. It sounded as though it were being held at Bunia's main stadium, where I knew from a game played by Medair and the Mercenaries (mostly the latter) that what scanty grass there is is cut by goat. The walls surrounding the stadium are also crumbling, requiring the goalies to leap to the top of the wall and solicit the kindness of passers-by in returning their ball after ever errant kick. I tuned back to the bike just in time to hear a moto driver inquire how much for the bike, and then how much for the woman? Rather gallantly (even if it did raise my feminist hackles), my friend claimed us both and said neither was for sale.
Goat patrol at the main soccer stadium
Given the incident I just described, I wouldn't blame you for being skeptical, but I find that I prefer traveling by the bike to either walking or driving as, though it is more noticeable, one seems to receive less harassment, sexual or otherwise (in fact, my harassment a are minor to what the teams get in the bush, where one colleague was propositioned by a Catholic priest who also happened to be the landlord of the base!). On the bike, for example, one is never stopped by a representative of the DGM (immigration), demanding to see one's visa. When I couldn’t find my copy, as I don't carry my passport, she lectured me in rapid French and then asked me to buy her and her buddy a sucre.

Driving is the worst, though. Of late, Bunia has been dotted with road blocks both legitimate and otherwise. The cops use 2x4s cruelly studded with nails to check for insurance and licenses, the necessity of both of which can be side-stepped with a few well-placed dollars. Of course, at the locally erected road blocks - usually nothing more than a rubber strip manned by about twenty dudes while another four were actually working on filling the ruts in the road, sort of - are totally illegal and somewhat intimidating. After a run at a UN base one Saturday, a colleague and I once drove completely outside of town hoping to avoid the blockade, only to run in to a gold mine and be forced to turn around and deal with it, anyway. We were mildly gratified to see the fuzz yelling at them on our way back. Though I hope it was something to do with the illegality of impromptu roadblocks, but it was in Lingala, so he could have been reaming them for not charging enough for all I know.

But none of these issues apply to the tandem. And even when you have to walk it up the final hill of the day, it gives a sense of freedom that can be difficult to find here. We ended our ride with a beer and some bizarre Russian Advil knock-off, courtesy of the foremost medical charity in the world. Sometimes, the disconnect between staff and beneficiaries does not go the way you might expect it to.

To bring us full circle to how little people here fear Ebola, we later watched in bemused horror as their guards stalked, ambushed, skewered, roasted, and ultimately devoured a possum-sized rat. Oh, Congo. Perhaps you should be a hair more leery of bush meat (especially bats. Rats, I’ll allow, but forever and always say no to bats. I don’t care what your witches’ brew calls for).