The rusty corrugated tin roofs blinked like diamonds among the greens and reds—such rich colors like an oil painting. The river whispered through the city all brown and dull as tiny black dots hustled down dusty streets and bright yellow and blue minibuses kicked by, scattering everything. Letting out a little gasp as the plane bumped onto the runway, all I wanted was to hold someone’s hand. Instead, all I could do was clutch the armrests and ignore the butterflies in my stomach. The Democratic Republic of Congo—one of the most dangerous countries in the world where rape is used a weapon of war and the only place where one of the most peaceful non-human primates resides. After almost five years of wanting to come here to study bonobos, I have finally arrived and am terrified and terribly excited—no wonder my stomach is all tied up in knots.
The flag beams a soothing blue with an optimistic star—all slashed through with a murderous red and yellow that reminds me of the ongoing violence in the east. After meeting up with a journalist and getting a few last treats, we will fly out to Basankusu on Saturday before taking a boat trip down the river and backpacking into the research site—hopefully arriving sometime next week. With half my bag filled with various medications and toiletries to last for four months, I’m hoping to squeeze in some chocolate and maybe a bottle of whisky.
Rewinding back to my last week at Lajuma, I feel slightly homesick again—clicking through photos and reminiscing about swimming at the rock pools one last time, abseiling down the cliffs again with two Barnboys (and surrounded by curious baboons including an adorable juvenile female who investigated our rope and watched with head cocked),a last braai, giving haircuts to some of the Barnboys (brave, brave souls), drinking beer, German Sandwiches, playing poker and other games and of course my amazing Lion King/Carnival themed going away party.
The Lajumies gave me a proper send off with yummy dinner (I directed how to make Grilled Charlies aka “a heart attack” which everyone found “interesting” but not bad), beer pong (yes, I taught these Dutch and Germans how to play the All-American College Sport including taunting and distracting your opponents!), King’s and my all-time favorite and Barn classic: Hide ‘n Seek In the Dark. The LAST game you play in the night. One of the Germans climbed up onto the rafters—cheating and so not allowed! During the night, Jennifer presented me with a card she got everyone to sign—including Olga our cleaning lady! I almost started tearing up right then and there.
The night dissolved into mayhem with “meatloafs” (or dog piles) whenever someone tried to go to bed and bumper cars with the inner tubes—surprised nothing broke! Two of us survived until the sky slowly brightened before falling asleep on mattresses beneath a massive tree only to be woken up by Barnmates jumping us awake midmorning.
After lunchtime and with everyone feeling better (polished off multiple bottles of wine, dozens of beer, a bottle of tequila, whisky and God knows what else we got out hands on), we decided to flip through pictures—all 150 of them—together on the couch. Oh, how I love and will (and do) miss The Barn. I then made everyone Deviled Eggs since one of the Germans from Bush Camp said he had dreamt of them. Procrastinating from packing, some of us lay out in the sun on the mattresses chatting and dozing and drinking the very last beer found in the fridge.
“Join our hippie colony” one remarked as another plopped down.
My last day at Lajuma…cue tears.
I warned everyone I would cry the next morning. Packing was awful and exhausting. My poor sad little room; the best room in The Barn and my home since September. Later that night, after months of waiting to see the Lion King, we all piled onto the couch and watched it. Afterwards, I wanted to sleep beneath the stars (for the fourth time that week! It’s amazing sleeping outside and addicting) one last time. Listening to l’apres midi from the Amelie soundtrack, I didn’t feel ready to go. But things were going too well at The Barn (as one of the Lajumies would say, Awesome…amazing actually) and it was definitely time to leave.
The stars were particularly beautiful that night.
Dawn and both Samango troops were trilling and chirping away mixed with soft sounds of booms and munching. I’d like to think they were coming to say Goodbye. All packed up and ready to go, Kevin caught me crying outside and gave me a much needed hug as I wept into his chest. Getting everyone together outside, it was now my turn to take a last group photo in front of the Barn—Cat included. Afterwards, I gave The Barn-ies a going away card from their “Former Barn Queen”—telling them to read it after Town Day.
On the ride down, I started crying into one of the Germans, as Jennifer gave me a comforting pat, and he let me hold his arm the whole way down as I tried controlling my sniffles and calling out, “OK leopards, last chance! Come out” and telling the Lajumies, “Someone always sees at least one leopard per week I’m off the mountain so that’s twelve leopard sightings while I’m away—my gift to all of you! You’re welcome.”
When we arrived at the internet café, we all piled out and I immediately started crying again while giving goodbye hugs—saving the last one for my (2nd) favorite German (after Beccy of course: https://primatesandme.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/beccys-last-week/). Casually between tears, I hiccupped “See you guys in June!” My return flight passes through Frankfurt where we plan on a possible Lajuma reunion in Berlin or Holland.
Things still feel completely surreal and probably will continue to feel so for weeks. I keep mistaking car alarms for frogs and soft rumbles for the Samango’s booms. The stars are dimmed by the city lights and the air is clogged with pollution. My brain on replay: I’m in the frickin’ Congo! Three months in the bush with bonobos seems like such a long and short time. Another dream to be realized and something else I can lovingly tick off the mental checklist. I’ve told everyone to do a whisky or tequila shot for me on my birthday: April 24th (also Easter this year!)…Turning twenty-three in the DRC!
A year ago, I never would have imagined being here. Funny where life takes you. I hope I can still see the stars despite the canopy of the trees.