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Published: July 23rd 2007
Our venture into the Congo was brief, but definitely an adrenaline rush. Claude (a friend I met at a conference in Cape Town) picked David and I up from the Gisenyi bus station in the afternoon and then after booking our return ride and checking out the beautiful Kivu Sun Hotel, we made the 3 kilometer journey to the Rwandan-Congolese border. The man at the customs office took my passport and questioned me with a smile, 'Why go to Congo? Stay in Rwanda, it is beautiful here.' I couldn't argue with him, Rwanda is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The land seems to capture every sense, so much so that at times it is almost overpowering. And as hard as I try, I can't seem to take a photo that captures the essence of Rwanda. Once I get some photos up here, I am sure you all will be commenting how beautiful it is, but I can guarantee you that it is nothing like the real thing. Anyhow, Congo has always been a place of curiosity for me, so I was determined to step into the country, even for only a brief period of time. So, I walked across the border with David and Claude (walking to Congo on foot, pretty cool, right?) and entered the Congolese customs office, if you could call it that. I had been warned about the border crossing by guidebooks and friends who had been through traumatic experiences.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a place that exploits vulnerability. And as a white woman, or a tourist of any kind, that vulnerability is wide open for being taken advantage of. There is no hiding it, but luckily, Claude walked with me into the office and helped me out while I attempted to obtain a day permit. The first officer we met congratulated Claude on finding such a beautiful wife and bringing her back to the Congo, then he asked for my passport and vanished. A couple minutes later he returned without my passport and started talking to a fellow Congolese about his permit issues. After idly waiting for awhile, I stepped deeper into the office to find my passport lying on the table next to another customs office...nudging Claude a bit I urged him to talk to the man about my passport and see if we could speed up the process. The officer glanced at me, said a few words to Claude, demanded some American dollars and then handed the passport to two women who had been staring at me throughout this entire process. Laughing at Claude with my passport in their hands, they told him I was beautiful and stamped my passport. And like that, I was in the Congo.
The streets of Goma have been in complete ruin since the volcano eruption that devastated the city in 2002. It is estimated that when the lava came down the majority of the Congolese population fled into the lake by boat or across the border into Rwanda. Luckily, the lava leaked down from the top of the mountain slowly, allowing people to escape, but the fate of the town was near doom. Today, Goma is slowly being rebuilt, but the majority of the town is still covered by black lava rock and ash. Aside from the devastation of the volcano the absence of law and order is very apparent within the city. Motorbikes weave in and out of alleyways into the mix of children and cars. As David put it, 'Everyone hustles in the Congo.' Even children as young as six could be seen selling shoes, candy, or cell phone credit. Whatever it takes to survive. At one point driving in Claude's little Suzuki SUV we passed a car weaving in and out of traffic and we all did a double-take. 'That kid must have been 10 years old, I bet he couldn't even touch the pedals.' remarked David in disbelief. No one else seemed to think anything of it, not even the police parading with their machine guns around town; it seems that in the Congo chaos is the norm.
After a long lunch and quickly meeting Claude's many relatives, we decided it was time to head back over the border. The same process as earlier ensued, the officers made comments in a mix of French, KinyaRwanda and Swahili, and the Rwandan officer asked me how I enjoyed my stay in the Congo.
I have to say that Congo still fascinates me. A country the size of Western Europe, but I told the officer honestly that I was glad to be back in Rwanda, back to picturesque Gisenyi, and as Claude put it, compared to Congo, 'back to heaven.'
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