A small group of American journalists for Stars and Stripes came to tour the Borlaug Institute farm at Camp Base, and we thought it would be a fun experience for them to go on a nice river cruise down the Congo River. Much like the voyage of the S. S. Minnow, our forty minute voyage downriver to Bamboo Palace, a fantastic Belgium restaurant with the best beef in Kisangani and fantastic fried plantains, turned into a test of will.
The dark clouds should have discouraged us. The rumbling thunder coming from behind the house should have made us think twice. Hell, the quick burst of rain should have made us wonder if it would be followed by more.
Casting aside our doubts, the five of us, two reporters for AFRICOM, a Public Affairs Officer, our fixer-slash-translator Didier, and me, boarded the fifty-foot longboat parked out front of the house and set out on our voyage downriver. Dressed in not much more than t-shirts and pants, we brought along some plastic chairs to sit on and our cameras and nothing else.
The boat chugged down the river for a few miles while the warm wind gusted into our faces. As I was warning everyone to avoid taking photos of the main shipping docks (we’d be considered spies if we were caught) it began to rain again. But this time it was different.
The rain poured down on us, and it brought with it the cold air from above. Amanda, one of the reporters behind me, asked if it was hailing; the rain seemed to cut into our skin. Because we were passing the docks we had no choice but to push on into what felt like a wall of razor blades. Didier had turned his seat around to put his back to the rain and we all followed suit. This helped cut down on the pain, but it also meant that there would be not a single inch of dry clothes on our bodies.
The pilot began angling for shore as the rain intensified. We edged around the docks to the dirty land beyond while the temperature
continued to fall. Most everyone was shivering and we’d only really been on the boat for twenty minutes, but once we reached land we ran up thorough a Congolese shack, two white girls, two white guys, all soaked to our skin bursting through a shack onto the main boulevard where hundreds of locals lined the streets under awnings and stared in awe.
We hurried into a Congolese bar next to the United Nations HQ. As I pushed through the bead curtains I was immediately greeted by two women, one holding an infant child wrapped in colorful cloth, huddled in chairs by the entrance. Beyond them were a few men, two drinking Primus, one drinking Turbo King (a stronger been which seems to carry the stigma of either a strong man or a drunkard), and a giant loudspeaker which was thankfully not blasting music at the time.
The women started handing us chairs and we all sat around the table with the mother and her child trying to decide what to do next. We ordered some beers, Primus and Turbo Kings, to split up just so that we wouldn’t impose, and attempted to get the reporters’ driver on the phone.
Outside, the rain continued. Bursts of cold, wet rain would gust into the bar through the beads, and the heavy downpour on the tin roof above caused my mind to imagine the gunboys firing off their AKs during the war. They’d once come through Kisangani, those child soldiers, high on booze and dope and magic potions to protect them from harm, indiscriminately shooting at any passing target.
The beers helped to warm ourselves even if our clothes did only the opposite. But the driver was nowhere to be found. I had a feeling that even though we’d said we’d be at Bamboo Palace in two hours, he had pressed on to wait there, and I knew it was well out of cell phone range.
After 30 minutes the rains began to subside. A group of three mamas came into the bar, one carrying a sack of beans on her hair, and they took a table in the back. When the woman with the beans sat down, she did so without removing the sack and even bent over to move a chair for her friend, all while effortlessly balancing this burden. With no driver, but with a reinvigorated sense of adventure thanks to the liquid courage – our own magic potion – we decided to press on down the river. The pilot agreed – he wanted his pay – so we thanked our patrons in the bar, Amanda bought the women a round of beers, and we headed down to shore.
No sooner did we board the boat when a man in a suit seemed to materialize out of nowhere with a militia officer at his side. He identified himself as an immigration officer and wanted to know if we all had documentation proving that we were allowed to be here. Of course we didn’t have anything of the sort with us and if we did it would be soaked and unacceptable to them.
Thankfully, Didier flashed his FARDC / Camp Base identification which he was given for just these sorts of problems. Had he not had that, I would have been on the phone and would soon be handing this man a connection with the Colonel in charge of Camp Base. In any case, after a few minutes of tension amongst my shipmates, we were let off without a bribe changing hands.
An hour after we initially set off, we were on our way again. The light was beginning to fade already as the equatorial sun had begun its regular 7:00pm descent below the horizon. Boats were hurriedly ferrying the last people home across the river and fishermen were paddling their dugouts to shore.
The motor chugged us on down into the darkness as the lights of the city become one small light off in the distance behind our backs. Every now and then a strike of lightening in the distance would illuminate the vast expanse of this magnificent river, sometimes drawing the dark silhouettes of a dugout and its crew out late for a nighttime catch.
Kisangani is where the river bends and we were changing direction from west to north. Had the sun still been up, we would have seen it set across the river. Had the sky not been overcast, we would have seen the heavens moving in a thin band from east to west above our heads. Instead, we only saw the dark outline of the shore, and occasional lights off in the distance slowly, after long periods of growth, being revealed.
The lights became a house where a woman was outside rehanging the clothes to dry. The lights became the riverside market where vendors were huddled around one remaining stall smoking cigarettes and gambling work. The lights became a river barge docked to the shore while its crew played loud music and welcomed the night with palm wine.
And finally, one light that came after the house and the market and the barge became our destination. Two and a half hours into a forty minute cruise down the river we arrived at the Bamboo Palace, still enervated from the wet and cold but also giddy with adventure and success.
In the dark we managed to navigated the landing, unable to see the stairs up the hill at first, causing a few false attempts. We thanked the pilot for his hard work and paid him handsomely for the effort.
Dinner was fantastic, everyone enjoying the fried plantains and their choice of entrée. Hot tea and cold beers helps to warm cast off the cloak of rain each of us wore, and, as seems to be the focus when reporters are around, talk turned towards Didier’s experiences in Congo and his knowledge about the war.
After the drive home, and some short goodbyes and best wishes, I was not surprised how quickly sleep came to me. Weather is a tough obstacle to overcome. I’d like to say I dreamed a child’s dream of pirates on the high seas or of an adventure down a crocodile infested river, but I simply was too tired to remember.