Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Volcano Fever (part 2): From Uganda to the Congo

(Read part 1 of this series here. My friend Kelly and I made an impromptu trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park to see Africa’s most dangerous volcano).

At sunrise Kelly and I left Rwanda headed for the Uganda border. We were trying to cross into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but were having to go this roundabout route because we were unable to secure a visa. Our fixer was getting tired of our peppering him with questions about all the things that could go wrong.

“No problem, no problem.”

Some part of us thought we were blowing it all out of proportion. But another part remembered that this was an active war zone, and that that must count for something.

Our risk assessment of the situation swung from one extreme to the other. Surely we were doomed, our fixer was going to dump us off and we would be snatched up by bandits within minutes. An hour later we thought we were magic, that bad things only happened to other people.


Surely we would die instantly if we got near this… or be able to walk across it without getting hurt. (Photo from National Geographic)

Much of my work involves understanding how to make decisions under uncertainty. Kelly was nearly ten years younger than me and so I told myself that I was going to keep her from being reckless. However, she was also with the military and had a few of her own crazy stories. She was secretive about her work, often describing herself only as “an engineer”.

Part way through the morning I turned on the recorder and started to narrate. I joked that this was just in case they found our bodies and wanted to reconstruct the record of what happened. Much of what followed comes directly the transcriptions:

Get Thee to the Reverend

(tape begins)

Tom: “Ok so we’re in Kisoro, Uganda at the Virunga hotel.” I was inside dropping off our backpacks because we were only taking the bare minimum into the Congo. The morning began on a surreal note when Kelly was accosted by a religious fanatic.

Kelly, upset, interrupted: “That lady won’t stop talking to me. It was really confusing and they were all laughing and kept telling me she was crazy but then she kept poking my face.”

Tom: “Poking your face?”

Kelly: “Only a couple of times, but she kept asking me if I had seen the Reverend Laviv (sp?), the preacher.”

Tom: “Is this the lady here?”

Kelly: “Oh no, she’s coming-”

A thin but otherwise normal-looking 30-40 year old Ugandan woman approached.

Tom greeted her: “Hello! How are you? (off microphone talking, unintelligible) Sorry, you are asking if we are dying of “the cancer of the sex?” (more inaudible unintelligible reply)

Tom asked: “So… what should we do?”

She swayed close to microphone and rambled (audibly but still unintelligibly): “What we should do? Yes, you me and the rest of the town to be kind, to have compassion. Because of the priss (?) of non-nongella of Noah (?), the sex, you are dying, yes. Come to the rest of the Rhine (?), because of my freshman dine (?).”

A pregnant silence followed. The question marks continued to float around us.

Tom: “Right… Ok thanks!… Merci beaucoup.” (end of tape) Already I had forgotten that Uganda’s colonial language was English, French was spoken in DRC and Rwanda.

The tape started again in a moving car, driver and guide laughing. Tom: “(sighing) I wasn’t quite expecting to hear about “the cancer of the sex” this morning. Usually I don’t hear about that until (checks watch) after 7 am…. Did you understand anything she was saying?”

Kelly: “I heard “compassion” and “Qbert” and “my river”, but “cancer of the sex” was a standout.”

Sneaky Pictures

The taped ended and continued after some driving.

Tom: “Right, in front of us we have a truck completely chock-a-block with riot guards in body armor.”

Kelly: “Who are these soldiers on the truck?” Some were standing, others hanging off the sides.

Driver: “These are the policemen, they are deploying them to various places to work.”

Kelly: “That would be an awfully cool picture.”

Tom: “(laughing) Yeah NO… no pictures of the police.”

The car went quiet as Kelly steadied her camera lens next to the driver’s headrest. The driver maneuvered to get closer to the truck. He asked “Are you good at taking sneaky pictures?”

Kelly: “…I’m the best.” (shudder sounds)


Crossing Over Borders

Shortly before we crossed from Uganda into the DRC, we picked up the guard and gave him a ride to work. When we first got there, a giant crowd of people was waiting to cross the border. We got escorted to the front of the line and passed everyone standing silently for a flag-raising ceremony. We handed our passports and money to the guard as he went inside.


This is the last we’d see pavement for a while

We saw many men in many kinds of uniform. I wondered if some people showed up in uniform for fun? Perhaps they made their own uniforms and hoped to be offered a border guard job someday.

When they finished the ceremony and rang the opening bell madness erupted and everyone started walking across the first border through a narrow gate. There were people with bicycles, carts, large sacks of goods and so on. There were elderly men and women doubled over from weight of the firewood they carried on their heads.

congo8 Kelly jumped for joy at the border


I jumped and got stuck. Someone had to come get me down.

I asked to go in the guards’ latrine because I have an ongoing experiment to find the worst toilet in the world. This one wasn’t so bad, a simple but clean hole in the floor. It was locked and out behind the main office. There, the guards were literally doing some “back door” business- three guards were hustling down a smuggler who was trying to bring goods across the border. There was money passing between the smuggler and the guards and they were threatening him “either you’re going to give us some money or we’re going to take your stuff”.


The latrine at the border

On the other side of the border we met a new driver in a more rugged vehicle. Within minutes we reached “the end of the road” (according to Google Maps) and came to a gate that was closed. Our fixer got out and opened the gate and we passed through to the rutted dirt road beyond.

Kaindo and Shako Go Off the Map

The difference between Uganda and the DRC was stark, even over such short distances. DRC was decidedly wetter and greener, full of oversized banana trees. It was the kind of place you could dig a hole, go make a sandwich and by the time you returned it would’ve grown back.


We briefly stopped at a river crossing where a woman was washing her clothes. We were told we had to rush because we were getting late. We crashed into pothole after pothole at full speed; “My favorite is when the bump is so hard that the windshield wipers go on”.   Soon the tape started again…

Tom: “(laughing) Any more narration? Ok, so we just blew out a tire on a dirt road an hour away from nowhere (pause) Are we getting out?” (tape ends)

Within a minute of breaking down, three armed guards (Park rangers? Military? Paramilitary?) on patrol walked down the road and assisted us. The tire was shredded and needed replacing. The car was jacked up and tire removed. Then the jack broke and the car collapsed to the ground in a big crash. We lifted it out of the mud and tried to put it on a stack of rocks. Unsuccessful.


The military waved down a passing van but it still drove through. A second overcrowded vehicle stopped and provided a new jack. 


A Samaritan got covered head to toe in mud scrambling under the car to make sure it was stable. If you look closely, you can see the stack of rocks under the car on the left.


A creepy bug wandered by.

The soldiers laughed and shared stories and cigarettes with us. We showed each other how to do different handshakes. When we asked their names they said their English names (e.g. Robert, Louis, etc). We asked for their African names… Would give us African names? The leader called Kelly “Kaindo”. From the way the other guards laughed, I had to imagine the translation was “beautiful woman”, or some military variant.

I was named “Shako”. When asked why he picked that name he said Shako was his brother who died.


A minute after starting up again we passed the van that did not stop for us earlier. The others now had a flat tire. Kelly remarked “That is Karma for you”. Then she discovered her new camera was suddenly no longer working. That is why I don’t ever say things like “That is Karma for you”.

The lush rainforest abruptly gave way to rocky grassland as the volcano came into view.

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