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Published: October 5th 2006
For some reason these hippopotamus statues are everywhere.
I don't think anyone travels to the Congo without being well informed about it, but I don't think anyone who goes to the Congo fails to compare it to the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, since it was the setting for this book. Yeah, it's fairly heart of darknessish, but so is all of Central Africa. This is where the guidebook ends, so I gave my guidebook away to a kid at the local restaurant. He wants to use it to help him learn English. Everyone wants to learn English here.
This is an intense place to be, it is really a place of extremes... the friendliness of people is overwhelming, the energy is great, I am eatting better than I have since I've been in Africa and for cheaper, and of course, I got arrested and interrogated for walking on the wrong side of the street, literally. Through this extortion/white man shakedown, I was a little cheekier, a little more insolent, and though it could've gotten me in trouble it worked out. I walked in to meet the officers, and greeted them all cordially and then cheerily announced that I wasn't going to give them any money.
They looked uncomfortable and said "Hey! We weren't going to ask for any money!" then they interrogated me for a while, and fifteen minutes later told me that I had to pay a fee for walking on the wrong side of the street. I stopped talking to them, and just ignored there questions for about ten minutes while looking at the ground. Then they asking me where I was staying so they could contact me, but I explained I didn't have an address because I was staying in a small hotel in the outskirts of town, where none of the streets have names. And of course, not having an address is also an infraction. I started ignoring them again. Finally they started chatting to me about my trip and America and religion and politics, their money hunger went away and they were just curious. Finally the big boss came in and announced I had to pay a fine of 10 dollars. I looked at the ground for another ten minutes and they told me I could go. I smiled and shook all of their hands and left.
This is a lovely town to walk around in, as long as
View of Bangui
Te most laid back capital I've ever visited
you know how to ignore some elements. I love how the downtown area by the Presidential palace immediately ends in densely forested hills. The Central Market, and the local market near my hotel are both lively, filled with some of the best fruit and vegetable variety I've seen in Africa. I found some excellent novels in French at the market, that will hopefully get me through any boat rides I have to take in the Congo. The river is wide and brown, with small canoes, pirogues floating about their business and you can look over to the green hills of the Congo. There are coconut palms and fruit trees nested everywhere among wooden shacks and decaying cement buildings. It's actually like paradise here, I have this excellent internet café, in the market nearby their is a tin roof shack with a playstation 2 and games to play, of course with excited kids crowded around wanting to see how good Americans are at video games, amazing food, better even then Togolais or Ivoirian food for dirt cheap in dirt floor, open air restaurants, where I can always engage in lively debates, I mean REALLY(I asked which was nicer, Cameroon or Congo,
and then witnessed a SCREAMING SHOUTING finger waving and good natured argument, where one woman insited it was Cameroonais who were more hospitable and a man said it was Congolais. If people argued like that in the US it is certain the police would be called, but of course after bouts of shouting there is a moment of silence and then everyone starts laughing) on a variety of topics.
The population here are some of the best educated I have met in Africa, and this combined with their outgoingness makes this an always fun and exciting place to be. The restaurant where I've been taking my breakfast, is run by kids who are all orphans, their parents having died from various things, mostly AIDS, the owner manager is 18, and he's running his restaurant to get through high school. He is a really smart and honest guy, who has helped me get everything I need to done in Bangui, like make sure I get the right price for everything, even supervising my haircut to make sure it was good. He has other orphans, from ages 8 to 14 or so helping him run the restaurant, washing dishes, preparing drinks, etc. He like everyone else thinks French people are stupid and Americans are great. The word they use here is complicated. "French people are so complicated! Americans are simple!"
Simple is a compliment. Here, whenever someone is giving you a hard time, you say, "Why are you complicating things? Why can't you just be simple?"
All that and a cheap local cinema in another wooden shack near by makes this a very easy place to relax and recover from the hassles of the road. I have to say that I am going to miss the friends I have made here. Bangui definitely wins the contest of being my favorite African capital, though I also really like Abidjan, but it's not officially a capital so it's not in the runnings I guess.
As for the Congo, I have done a lot of research about it. The Congolese embassy officials here were overjoyed to hear that a tourist was going to their country again. I think a lot of tourists have been crossing in the west to do trans africa trips and coming from the east to visit the gorillas, but I don't think there have been any in the north since the war. They told me not to worry, that I'd be fine, that I shouldn't have any difficulty there like here in CAR, but of course all the Centrafricains say it is worse there. A piroguier, canoe driver told me today that there is only 1 checkpoint between Zongo and Gemena, which is more than 100 km and my heart soared. We will see if it is true though.
I guess this is the heart of darkness, but the fact of coming here means that it is no longer. Once this mysterious region has faces, images to it, it is just another place. Well, we will soon see. Also, I found out there are frequent flights, however risky compared to western flights, that regularly head to Kinshasa, so if I get sick or injured along the way I won't be utterly doomed. Congo may be one of the worlds poorest countries, but I've been to several poorer, so it probably won't be worse than that, and all the masses of intelligence I've gathered on it have given me the green light to go ahead and realize one of my dreams. For at least 3 years now it's been somewhere that I've wanted to go, the mystery captivates me.
Before I came to CAR all I knew about this country was that I'd had a surly co-worker who came from here and that Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled here from Haiti when he was ousted by the Bush administration, after being put into power by the Clinton administration. At least I think that's what happened. Now it is not mysterious at all, it is just a place with it's high points and low points. I could definitely see myself living here, but I don't think that's going to happen for a good while.
Well, I hope the woman is write and Congolais are the most hospitable and welcoming people. In any case, I don't expect it to be much easier than the CAR, but I feel that I can make it for sure. I mean, plenty of tourists are now going to the DRC, but almost none dare to come to CAR, well I think there have been a couple, but with their own transport, which would make everything a relative piece of cake, so maybe the congo will eat up less money in bribes and I will get scammed and hassled slightly less. After CAR Guinea would feel like Switzerland...
Well, the next update, if God wills that there will be one, will reveal something of the Congo.
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