A common approach to see in many modern movies is the protagonist country-hopping. It’s so exciting, so romantic. One moment our hero is in Japan, following a corrupt business man about to complete a huge transaction. The next, she is in the Colombian jungle looking for a rare artifact. A quick caption at the bottom is our only hint that we have now shifted location thousands of miles. As I boarded my first of three flights to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, it was this globe-trotting theme that was surging through me.
My first flight from San Francisco to Toronto was delayed by over four hours, due to*two* planes having mechanical issues and each having to be switched out. I had a 5.5 hour layover in Canada, so it wasn’t that big of a deal- I spent the time in SFO instead of YZZ. Additional boarding delays did make me have to run to my next flight to Addis Ababa, but there was a problem with most passengers’ tickets and so we were delayed boarding as they went through each ticket, one-by-one. Then the plane had to be de-iced. Our 12.5 hour flight was delayed by 2 hours and it left me 10 minutes to get from one gate to the second in a non-Western airport. Three African business men and I were lead very quickly through the crowded airport. When we reached the gate, could see our smaller plane still waiting…and were told the flight was closed. The businessmen exploded with anger, the airline staff snidely told us they had called our names, but we hadn’t answered. While I wasn’t feeling sleepy at this point, my body was so exhausted and the thought of spending 24 hours in the crowded airport until the next flight to Kinshasa made me want to push past the attendants and run onto the plane in a hysterical manner. If this were a movie, surely the villain would have fed my love interest to a pit of crocodiles by this point, tired of waiting for me to show-up.
After another two hours standing in a customer service line (with the dozens of people who had also missed Ethiopian Airlines’ flights), one of the businessmen was next in line to be helped. He told us to give him our passports and tickets, then went up to the counter. A young seminary student traveling to Kinshasa to visit her sister had also had a delayed flight to Addis Ababa, so she got in on our group approach as well. Thirty more minutes passed. Finally, he returned with a voucher for a hotel room, meals, transport and one free 3-minute phone call. Everyone in our groupseemed much calmer at this point, but I was more than that. I was completely elated. I had forgotten I had any other purpose in life other than to be alone in a quiet room where I could sleep in a bed, so I was feeling quite accomplished.
Following a 3 minute phone call to Kinshasa which consisted of, “Stuck in Addis Ababa, be there tomorrow, sorry, bye!” I slept for several hours and then the missionary student, Miriana, and I decided to go out on the town. We asked the front desk for recommendations and they sent a woman with us to a restaurant with live performers. Ethiopia is a very old Christian country and they celebrate Christmas on January 7th, which just happened to be that day! Everyone was out in beautiful garb, the restaurant was packed and full of life.
Ethiopian dancing consists of a lot of short, small movements. A series of different dance groups came out, each with a different style and some with singers. Our hostess helped us to order food and explained the history of different dances and songs. There was so much color and beauty, I really fell in love with Ethiopia that night.
After a restless sleep (my body had no idea what time it was or what it was supposed to be doing), I packed up the few things from my carry-on (luggage was unaccounted for at this point) and went to breakfast. I had begun to suspect the reason they hadn’t let us on the flight the day before was because there were too many people booked for it. Well over 20 people were staying at our hotel, all of them missed connecting Ethiopian Airlines flights due to the fault of the company. If this happened daily, they were bound to get backed up. Also, now knowing it had been a national holiday explained why it was just so crowded in Addis Ababa’s airport.
This realization made me very nervous that morning, as all of us delayed flyers needed to get to the airport, preferably long before boarding time so we were assured a seat. At breakfast, people were talking and in no hurry. But I’m an American: I’m antsy, nervous and overzealous about being on time. I decided I was just going to go sit on the van, a couple of the businessmen I had befriended the day before had the same idea. My fears were realized when the van left several flyers behind, assuring them that another van would be along soon. Our van raced along, swerving precariously between other vehicles (including oncoming traffic). I was in the back along with two Congolese men who worked for a wildlife conservation organization in Kinshasa. We had to move our seat forward to fit luggage behind us, but the seat was not secure on the track now. When we stopped quickly, our seat would squish us forward. When the driver gunned it to cut someone off, we should quickly slam backwards. One of the men proclaimed, “Our seat is not serious. We will soon be in the street.”
We made our flight and the plane was huge, not the typical two-and-two-seat rows for most flights between African countries. This plane was the type used to fly across continents and oceans, so I again suspected they had overbooked yesterday’s flight and were trying to get back on track today.
The four-hour flight was uneventful. When leaving the plane and getting on the tarmac, I was greeted by a man with a sign, “TWOROSKI, NATASHA-MARIE BONOBOS,” who had been hired by the sanctuary to get me. He took my baggage-claim tickets and I went through customs. After a nightmare of trying to locate my bags, I was on my way!
French is the main language of DRC and I had attempted to listen to “Learn French in Your Car” CDs before I left. This has turned out to have been well worth the effort and I regret not investing more time into it. My driver drove me through traffic for an hour through very crowded Kinshasa to get to a point where I would be passed along to a driver who worked directly for Lola ya Bonobo. It was not that far, but the traffic made it a nightmare. This is the fourth major African city I have seen (including Kigali, Kampala and Addis Ababa), but the poverty level is clearly the highest in Kinshasa. So many buildings that were probably once hotels or businesses are now rubble, with collapsed walls and no roof, homes to those who have none. The other big cities I have been to have varied in their approach to cleaning-up roads (Kigali was spotless), but Kinshasa is different than all of those. Trash upon trash builds up on the roads, with homeless children, feral dogs and general poverty everywhere.
At this point, the traveling and lack of any solid sleep was catching up to me. I didn’t have any water, I had a headache, I was almost in a fatal car accident approximately a dozen times. It was one of the moments where you start to think, “Why? Why did I want this so badly?” The driver and an escort from Lola ya Bonobo were in the car and speaking very fast French, mostly like gossiping from the few words I caught. Then the escort leaned forward and said, “Madame Natasha, Welcome to Lola!”
Instant change of emotions. I cannot properly describe how quickly the habitat changed from traditional rural African roads to entering a jungle oasis. Lola ya Bonobo truly lives up to its name, http://www.lolayabonobo.org/ “Paradise of the Bonobos.” The center of the sanctuary, which hosts the offices and living quarters, is built on a large, green hill that is beautifully maintained by the staff. A large archway made of vines and decorated with flowers had been constructed for my arrival, it included a welcome sign in English (which I was later to learn required some effort by Pasha, the head groundskeeper).
I was brought to my room, which was considerably nicer than any place I’ve stayed at in Africa, and given a quick lunch. The rooms are spacious, well-decorated and each even has a wall air-conditioning unit for when there is electricity (although mine has yet to work).
Soon, I was greeted by the manager of the sanctuary, Fanny. Fanny’s mom is Claudine Andre, the brave woman who started the sanctuary in 1994 in the midst of a violent civil war. Like her mother, Fanny is kind, beautiful and gracious. As I spoke with Fanny, every frustration and annoyance I had felt left me. It was finally time for me to meet the bonobos.
Check back here tomorrow for another journal entry on my adventures in Africa!