Cruising down the Lulonga River in a long wooden pirogue powered by a motor, we began our 200km+ journey to Ndele from Basankusu after dawn. Children ran to the river bank waving and shouting at us in Lingala, giving off the feeling of physically experiencing a National Geographic piece.
Phrases taught by an artist met in Kinshasa who, after a long conversation, gave us (La Journaliste et moi) each a beautiful oil painting as a souvenir. Chattering in French while making heart noises to me, he was very respectful—the Congolese, Thank God, are not touchy-feely people. “It’s very importante” he kept beaming, insisting that we take the gifts as he removed them from their frames and rolled them up. Afterwards, we felt obligated to buy him dinner before re-packing our bags for our flight to Basankusu. With about $250 in snacks, tequila and wine bought in Kinshasa, it took me over an hour to rearrange my bag to make everything fit…barely.
With help from a local travel company, Jeffreys Travels, we made it through the tiny airport relatively hassle free.
“Pardon? Je ne comprends pas…Je suis desolee.”
Pretending not to understand (although typically that’s not the case…my French is terrible), acting confused and smiley, I was able to avoid passing off a bribe. On board the plane, seats are first come, first serve. Stopping in a small town to drop off/pick up passengers, a fight suddenly broke out when a man realized there were no seats left—the plane had been overbooked. Furious, the man began shouting in French as a steward tried to calm him down and shuffle him off the plane. Refusing to get off, shoving commenced as everyone moaned their disapproval. Several policemen came aboard as some muttered, “L’arreter.”
Finally, one man volunteered to give up his seat and everyone immediately calmed down—a big deal since the plane can fly as little as once a week. Surprised that the man wasn’t arrested, I nestled in for a short nap before making it safely to the Basankusu airport—more of a little house and a dirt runway—where The PhD met us.
Basankusu: charming and dusty with surprisingly good WiFi found at The Bureau (Technology is kind of Amazing). The market, cleaner than the ones in Mozambique, was beautiful and lively. Young children ran along carrying sugar cane and other goods on their heads while the mamas clucked and giggled and chickens and mutts weaved between feet. A woman hacked at an alligator (crocodile? Either way, its tail was still wiggling!) as dogs lapped at the coagulating blood dripping to the floor. Everywhere we looked was met with curious gazes as some bold youngsters laughed something in Lingala. All you could do was smile and nod.
Later at the hotel, after sipping palm wine (tres bonne) and surfing the internet at The Bureau, I short circuited the whole place by trying to turn on the fan. Oops. Skipping the shower (it was just a bucket in the corner with a cup), I fell exhausted into bed.
The next two days were spent cruising down to Ndele, stopping overnight at an outpost before the Lomako Yokokala Reserve. The river, a rich deep maroon, winded through the forest where small villages popped up every now and then. Arms were tired from so much waving as the heat bore down on us and men and women paddled up to us in pirogues, exuding perfect balance, to sell us fish and other goodies. Having gone down this river many times before, The PhD had developed relationships with some of the locals who presented us with gifts such as chicken eggs.
So used to waving at every passerby, The PhD whispered “Oh no, no, stop.” After leaving the post, we had heard a young man had drowned in an accident. These men were carrying him back wrapped in blankets. We came upon the rest of the family further down the river—faces ashen with mourning—and greeted them solemnly.
Arriving at Ndele around noon, we hiked a couple kilometers in using logs over the spongy, duff covered earth as porters carried our luggage, food and other supplies in (grande merci/malamu mingi). The humidity wasn’t too stifling and the canopy his us from the scorching midday sun. Lunch was prepped: fresh fish, steamed veggies and some fufu (similar to the South African pap but made with starchy vegetable roots…it’s quite yummy). Yesterday, the staff had a special treat for us: raffia palm grub. About 5cm long and fat, I had seen them wiggling earlier in the day. Fried and browned, I bit into one expecting a gush of juice (“Slimy yet satisfying”). Expectant faces looked at me as I chewed and chewed and chewed… the inside was creamy and the exoskeleton reminded me of leaves. The inside actually wasn’t bad but the “skin” put me off.
Despite minimal luxuries, the forest feels like home again. The Conoglese are extremely hospitable and helpful. I’ve realized how much water I actually waste since you really just need one bucket to get clean. Today, we plan to hike a little over 15km into Iyema where the real work will begin and I’ll need to brush up on my French and Lingala.
Je veux apprendre Francais. Tolingi toyekola lingala. (I want to learn French. I want to learn Lingala).