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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Arriving in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Surrender.  Welcome to Bukavu and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The final sentiment shared by Eve the evening before our journey departed for the DRC.  Like Eve, surrender will be perfectly fitting for this time.  In the DRC you leave your expectation for a well-organized schedule at the border along with any thoughts of a GPS, a map, any sense of order or surroundings.  Whatever you do, don't lose the lead vehicle!

We are a caravan of some 15+ vehicles. Traveling like a funeral procession, emergency lights flashing, staying as connected as train cars as we serpentine on red dirt roads to avoid the potholes that would wreak havoc on far more than our backs.  We finally arrive at the border with Rwanda but first have to secure exit from Burundi.  Patience and totally enjoying the layover with this extraordinary group of activists.

Mission accomplished.  We all know each other a little better, drive about 100 yards, and we get to start all over again, now to have our transit through Rwanda granted.  Christoff, our Rwandan fixer, acts brilliantly to speed up the process.

Rwanda is a tidy country.  Everything has order and each little hut, home, mud-and-grass structure appears tended to with the utmost care.  It is the most densely populated of all the African countries, and as you drive through the countryside on roads that are smooth and paved and brought to you courtesy of China, you feel that each resident is so grateful for what they have.  Rwanda is an anomaly here.  The lawlessness of the early 90's is almost completely absent.  Totalitarian rule, Kagami's iron hand.  There are pluses and minuses.  Freedom of expression is largely suppressed, its people quiet.  A raw wound that desperately tries to heal somehow.  But it is a country of great beauty, and the drive through Rwanda at times takes your breath away. 

We finish our transit and pass out of Rwanda effortlessly.  We literally drive across a short rickety bridge.  Welcome to the DRC.  Put your cameras away.  You can't openly take photos in the DRC. Soldiers are scattered everywhere, and taking a photo of them can get you into a spot of bother.  You also can be chased down by Congolese that might not want to be in your photos.  And when I say chased down, our caravan crawls through a mass of humanity with small children often close to the vehicles.  So it wouldn't be hard for someone to be grabbing at your door, which happened yesterday as we crawled from one side of Bukavu to the other.  While stopped for quite a while in a "traffic jam" (hundreds of people in between our cars), a man approached the front passenger door, opened it as quickly as he appeared, and caught Susan in the front seat by surprise. He only wanted her blackberry, maybe her bag.  But he was weak enough to be pushed away, and we quickly locked all doors. We then watched as he continued the same effort on our sister vehicles in front of us.  No proper means to warn them.

Our trip into the DRC took a few more hours than expected.  Hotel check-in can wait.  The rain has come.  We file down a little dirt road and head to the dock on Lake Kivu.

A boat ride on Lake Kivu will be our welcome to Bukavu and the area known as South Kivu. The lake is surrounded by green hills and mountains.  The French and Belgians once called this city and the surrounding area the Switzerland of Africa.  Everything grows here. You see European houses up on the hillside overlooking Lake Kivu.  You see poverty on a level that might only be matched by Haiti.  The water is polluted, the lake a burial site for countless victims.  Lake Kivu also boasts one of the greatest reservoirs of methane.  Some swim in the lake, but caution must be exercised.  When the methane is floating above the water, the gas will kill you.  As we motor around the lake, little fountains of bubbles can be seen exploding on top.  But still it is beautiful.

The best part of the cruise is the V-men band playing under a plastic tarp on the bow of the split level boat.  They have a great African beat.  The music is so beautiful you can't stand still.  Joining us on this welcome ride is the governor of South Kivu and the Congolese ambassador to the US, her excellency Faida Mitifu.

We disembark after a spectacular rain storm and head back to the vehicles.  Off for dinner at Coco Lodge.  Delicious food – thank you Eve for all the vegetarian options.  Delicate fish from Lake Kivu are served, as are large white balls the size of softballs.  They are similar to polenta, made from white cornmeal and a filling staple of the Congolese diet – if one is fortunate enough to have a meal. 

After a couple of days here, I realize they don't serve dessert after meals.  Sometimes, sometimes fresh fruit is served.  A country that doesn't know abundance when it comes to food does everything with a bit more lightness.  It's actually nice.  Our meals here are far apart but always made with love.

The most filling part of this trip  for me so far has been my travel partners.  Naomi Klein, who authored the beautiful piece in the Guardian after the oil spill last summer, "A Hole In The World."  Her father-in-law, Stephen Lewis, who led the world crusade to fight AIDS under Kofi Annan and is in the same league as Paul Farmer.  The list continues with one amazingly wonderful change-the-world person after the next. 

Checked in to the Orchid.  We are such a big group that our cohort is spread over three hotels, all lovely and on Lake Kivu.  The African night sky lights up as if someone had thrown stardust to the heavens.  The city descends into utter darkness.  Street lights don't exist here.  Hard to believe that we will sleep so peacefully and so many tonight will not.

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