Thursday, November 18, 2010


I have just returned from a two week vacation with my community to Kisangani, a city on the Congo River smack in the middle of the Congo jungle. Let’s just assume that all the traveling over treacherous Congo roads went swimmingly and we arrived in Kisangani and returned to Aru without encountering any problems such as muddy roads, rivers without bridges, flat tires, or running out of gas and focus on Kisangani itself. 

We were in Kisangani for one week and I think we were able to see pretty much all there is to see in this moderate sized jungle city. Kisangani is located on the upper reaches of the Congo on the last navigable part of the river. It is about .01ยบ above the equator and thus very hot. There are also lots and lots of mosquitoes. In colonial times it was known as Stanleyville (which is great because I went to Stanley British Primary School for kindergarten and as it turns out the city and school are named for the same guy) and was a major trading post for goods headed down the river to Kinshasa (Leopoldville) and onto Europe. Since colonial times Kisangani has fallen on hard times being the center of much violent conflict and even the setting for a war between Rwanda and Uganda. Being in the middle of the second largest rainforest on earth, Kisangani is not exactly accessible. Although the road we took from Bunia was passable it was by no means a high way, thus, the river is the main means of transport. Kisangani shows signs of once being a prosperous city and the potential to become a prosperous city again, but at the moment it’s nowhere. There are many beautiful old colonial building and many crumbling concrete buildings. There are some paved roads and many pitted, muddy, dirt roads. There are a fair amount of motorcycles and a few cars. There are some expensive places to eat and lots of cheap street food (like GIGANTIC larvae). It was a wonderful opportunity to see more of Congo and compare Aru, a town, to Bunia, a small city, and Kisangani, a larger city (the 2nd or 3rd largest in Congo).  

Day 1: We arrived from Bunia bright and early Sunday morning at 6 am. After waiting to officially register with immigration (Congolese LOVE paperwork) we made our way to a lovely hotel ½ block from the Congo river- Le Palm Beach. Palm Beach features a swimming pool, hot water from the tap, air conditioning, and a tv complete with CNN- in English! So it was a nice play to stay. Plus, the proprietor gave us a discount because we’re volunteers. I imagine it helped that we showed up to check in with a sister…

Everyone else went to the pool, but I got stuck on the bed, since I hadn’t slept so much on the 24 hour bus ride from Bunia. After a relaxing morning we decided to try out the hotel restaurant for lunch, and thus commenced our first of many nearly identical restaurant experiences. All restaurants in Kisangani have the exact same menu, but the all change the prices a bit depending on their perceived elegance. All restaurants in Kisangai are missing certain parts of their menu, so you sometimes have to ask for 2 or 3 things before you find something that the kitchen has. All restaurants in Kisangani take at least 1 ½ hours to bring you your food from the time of ordering. Okay, so we didn’t try ALL restaurants in Kisangani, but all the restaurants we did try were almost exactly the same. So much about restaurants. Now when I say we ate at a restaurant you know that we had to order 3 times and wait 1 ½ to 3 hours for our food. So, 1 ½ hours later we left the Palm Beach restaurant and took a walk down by the river and around the town a bit. It was great to finally see the great river of this country, and the 4th largest river in the world. It is indeed a large river, especially for me since I don’t have much to compare with in the way of rivers growing up next to the Platte and all. The Congo makes the Platte look absolutely pathetic. 
The Canossians of Kisangani invited us for dinner that night so we went out to their place, which happens to be an amazing old colonial building overlooking the Congo. I can easily imagine the old colonials sitting on the front porch, looking over the river, and sipping their gin and tonics. Here is the view:

I don’t know how, but the Canossians are able to get the best pieces of land all over the world, but I will have to explain more on that in another post. 

Day 2: We slept in, late. It was amazing. And very cold in our air conditioned room. We spent the morning lounging at the pool, swimming and sunning. We had a picnic in our room with food the sisters sent us, watching tv:

In the afternoon we made our way to the famous Wagenia Falls where the fisherman have built big wooden frames over the river from which to dangle fishing net like things and catch fish. This is what it looks like:

We then took a pirogue (small canoe-like boat) on an expedition down the Congo to the convent to meet Srs. Daniela and Charlotte for dinner. It was a beautiful time of day to be out on the river, just before sunset so the temperature and scenery was perfect. It was very relaxing to be rowed down the river and take in the sights. The Congo is a huge river completely surrounded by dense jungle. The city and other small towns poke out a bit, but really, the jungle dwarfs all its surroundings, coming just to the river’s edge on both sides. Here are some photos of our expedition:

We met the sisters at a lovely place, but they didn’t have food because you need to call 1 day in advance, so we went into the city and ate at a restaurant- you know how that went.

Day 3: Srs. Daniela and Charlotte came to fetch us in the morning for in expedition to the Left Bank. We hopped in a pirogue with a motor and traversed the river in a few minutes. There is a small town on the other side of the river plus a railway station. The railway looks like its from the 1950s (which it is) and hasn’t been updated since (which it hasn’t) but it is still working. We then set off on a long trek around visiting Wagenia falls from the other side and tramping though a lot of very hot jungle. We ended in the town center where there is a huge church, St. Martha’s and ate our picnic lunch at the local convent where Sr. Charlotte has some friends. After lunch we headed back over to the Right Bank to experience the Kisangani market.  

The market in Kisangani is more or less the same as the market in Aru, but on a much bigger scale. There are more things for sale, more shops, more stalls, and more people. But the basic feeling is the same. It was fun to check it out and see all the goods one can find in Kisangani, but also tiring and a little overwhelming for someone accustomed to a small town market. Think what it would be like to go to Super Target after months of 7-11. Well, after the market expedition we were all quite tired so we headed back home for a short nap time.

After nap we headed over to the convent for dinner with the sisters. After dinner we went back to Palm Beach where I took advantage of CNN in English to follow the results of Election Day in America. It was a nice surprise to know what was going on in the world and especially my country, but it also reminded me how out of touch I often am in Aru. We don’t have television and the internet is so slow, who wants to waste time on silly things like news? So I usually have no idea what is going on in the world. Thus, I enjoyed very much watching Election Day news in my air-conditioned hotel room!

Day 4: We had grand plans to visit the hydro-electric plant on the river to the north of Kisangani, the Tshopo, but once there we were told we needed to seek permission from another office in the center of town. So instead we crossed the river and had drinks at a “beach” overlooking the falls, which are quite a nice sight:

We then walked over to the “zoo.” I think our guidebook describes the zoo best “…a sorry place with about three animals right now.” It was indeed sorry, but there were more than 3 animals, I think there were at least 7. But they were all in very small, plain, cages, and didn’t seem all that happy. There was also a wild monkey who hangs out by the caged monkeys, I don’t know if he’s comforting or tormenting his captured comrades, but it was an odd juxtaposition.

The plus side of this type of zoo (or yet another minus) is that you can pet all the animals, so here is Stefano getting groomed by Freddy the Chimpanzee:

And Matteo kissing the snake that they kindly took out of its cage for us

After the restaurant we retreated over the Tshopo and sought a place for lunch. This restaurant was the same as the others, but also special. Some of the food arrived lickity-split after one hour, but Clara’s did not arrived after 3 hours, which is the Kisangani restaurant record.  

We had a few quiet hours in the late afternoon and evening before heading out for a big night on the town. We went to one of Kisangani’s premiere night clubs “Dallas.” I am sure I won’t do this place justice in my description because it was something special, but I’ll try. In the middle of the rather broken down city of Kisangani we found ourselves in a very posh night spot. There was music blasting and laser lights beaming all over the place and every 5 minutes a smoke machine added to the bizarre atmosphere another layer of mystery. The music was a mix of African and American music from the 80s and 90s. I found myself dancing to the Macarana (but me and Lydia were the only ones dancing). And I can’t forget the floor to ceiling wall mirror that everyone oriented there dancing toward. I must say, I’m not sure I want to see myself dance, but in Africa, it’s all about watching yourself in the mirror. After awhile it this strange atmosphere we decided to move on to another place. We found another night club that wasn’t quite so posh (the beer was 1/3 the price). It wasn’t so fancy, but it too featured mirrors. In fact, I observed that people didn’t so much dance with each other as they did with themselves in the mirror. Very different from America. On the other hand, some aspects are the same in all night clubs all over the world. 

Day 5: I dragged myself out of bed early after our late night out so I could attend daily mass at the Kisangani Cathedral which was just a 2 minute walk from our hotel, overlooking the river. This is the Cathedral from the river (our hotel is to the left and ½ block back):

The mass was in Swahili so I understood even less than I normally do when mass is in Lingala. My favorite part was the 10 year old who was playing a gigantic drum almost taller than him.  

Later in the morning Sr. Roberta, the superior of the Kisangani Canossian Crew came to fetch us to visit a center for handicapped people run by a priest who was bitten by a mosquito on the spine and became paralyzed. He decided to devote his life to helping other handicapped people and in 25 years has built this center. People can go to the center for different therapies as well as educational opportunities. Most of the center is run by the handicapped themselves. It was very inspiring to see a sustainable and successful project.

The rest of the day we spent quietly at the hotel, enjoying the pool, the sun, napping, and so forth.  

For dinner we tried what the guidebook described as the best restaurant in Kisangani. And it did not disappoint. Now, to be sure everything was the same as all the other Kisangani restaurants BUT Psisteria had free appetizers. As it turns out the hour and half of waiting for food goes much faster when you have some bread and butter to munch on in the meantime. And there was just something different about the atmosphere of the place that made it seem like it was slightly better run than other restaurants. 

Day 6: Our last day in Kisangani. We started off by returning to the hydro electric plant on the Tshopo for our tour (we had dropped by the central office the day before to pick up our official letter). Apparently there was some miscommunication because the people at the plant were expecting 20 Belgians military personnel rather than 5 multi-national missionaries, but no matter. The tour was cool, but I don’t understand much about electricity and even less in French. My favorite part was the control room because it was right out of a 1950s film. Yes, the Kisangani power plant is still using the technology of the Belgian colonial period 50 years ago. But it’s still working…

After the plant we went to the sisters’ for one last meal. One of the sisters even made Tiramisu (or something like it) for us. Then Sr. Roberta joined us for a tour of the Primus brewery. Primus is the premiere Congolese beer. In Kisangani, this beer is actually cheaper than water. Usually factory tours take you through some displays on the process and then maybe you get to see some of the real factory through a window. But this was not your usual factory tour. Our guide took us right through the real factory, where everyone and everything is actually working to make the beer. It would never fly in the U.S., but it was a pretty cool experience. At the end of the tour we got to taste some Primus straight from the vat, before bottling, and it was good. Much better than the bottled stuff in fact. Another hi-light of the tour was the view from the roof of Kisangani:

This picture is odd because while on the street I never noticed many trees, but from the roof I could hardly find the city.  

After Primus we continued our touring by visiting a house for Street kids just outside of Kisangani. It was a very simple place and over crowed. Over 50 small boys sleep in one small room on make shift beds. It is better than being on the street, but it is a project that needs a lot of work. There are currently 2 Italian volunteers helping to run it now so hopefully it can become more organized.

By now it was getting very late and the sun was setting on the final day in Kisangani. We hurried to the Hotel Bamboo out of the city on the Congo for a nice view of the sunset and we hoped dinner. We did get the lovely sunset, but dinner no:

So we returned to our favorite restaurant for one last restaurant meal before going back to Aru and cooking for ourselves and doing our own dishes.

This post is getting mighty long, but that is the end of our Kisangani vacation. I will write more updates soon on what is going on in Aru.  And just so you know whose blog your reading, here is a picture of me and the Congo river:

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