A Travellerspoint blog

Lots of stuff

I'm so tired but I'm writing this anyway

I'm really tired after such a long and busy weekend, so if this entry lacks my usual attempt at wit, that's why.

So Friday was 4th of July. Happy 4th of July to everyone, by the way. I've never been that into 4th of July, and this weekend was probably the most I've ever done to celebrate it. Suprisingly, fireworks were not a part of it. So like I said in my previous entry, there was a big party at the Ambassador's house, with probably about 1000 people. It was, of course, invite only, and to get invited you either had to be very high up in the DRC government or be very connected in the international community in Kinshasa. It was a lot of schmoozing and mingling, and mostly U.S. ppl were catching up with their contacts in the Congolese government. It wasn't very fun, except for the free food.

After the party ended, we went out to this bar/club called Ibiza Bar, which is arguably the best club in Kinshasa. It is frequented by expats, because who else can afford to pay for $12 beers? That's right, TWELVE DOLLARS. I don't know if I've already said this, but it is REALLY expensive for expats to live here. In any case, I have to say that it was pretty much the most fun I've ever had at a club, ever, mostly because of the music. There was a live band, and they were pretty much phenomenal. They played sorta a mixture of jazz and funk, and Congolese music. I had heard that the Congo is (although not as much as it used to be) basically the heart of African music, but I'm really starting to see not only how wonderful the music is and but also how it is such an important part of the culture. That's right, me Mrs. Classical is saying that I REALLY like Congolese music. I mean, I could really get into this stuff. Anyway, after Ibiza we went to ths other place called la Creche, which was more of club for locals. It had the worst speaker system I've ever heard in my life, and I'm pretty sure it caused permanent hearing loss to anyone within a half-mile radius. Needless to say, we didn't say too long.

Okay, so the next day, the 5th, was the independence day party for all Americans and their families in Kinshasa at the Ambassador's house. It was mostly just a day to relax and have fun with the American community. The pool was open, people were playing tennis, there was a talent show, lots of food, a bake-off. My fellow interns REALLY wanted to win the talent show and the bake-off, because of the $100 gift certificates prize to the best pizza place in Kinshasa! They put together this sort of Pan-African dance peformance, I guess you could say. Anyway, I was watching them rehearse without music and I was like, uhh, you guys need music, what me to drum? And they were like sure! So I just tried to keep an easy beat for them on the djembe (which someone loaned to us). Here's the link of the performance, I think it turned out pretty well, actually, and it seemed to get a good response from the crowd. We did miss up a bit though, it wasn't totally together. But anyway it was really fun practicing and putting it together with the other interns...they even made their own costumes!


Like I said, I also entered the talent show. The keyboard was actually really nice, like probably the best keyboard I've ever seen or played on. It had really great touch sensitivity and pedal. To make a long story short, I ended up winning (so we did win the prize), but I would have preferred that we win as a group. I don't think I handled it very well, because I probably should have said, nah, my group really wins, or I dunno, something like that. I hope I didn't look obnoxious.

Anyway, that night 3 of us went out again, to this house party with a ton of U.N. and E.U. people, plus any other expats who are in Kinshasa for one reason or another. Since this community isn't very big, I was told that usually the same 50-100 show up. It had a very euro feel, with techno trance music and sangria, and it was obviously thrown by euro trash. Most of the people there were in the their late 20s early thirties, so I was by far the youngest, the least mature, and the one with the least amount of life experience. Not only am I 20, but I don't even have a job here really, and most of the people there are well-experienced diplomats and humanitarians. In any case, I obviously haven't been to a lot of adult parties.... And for those of you who know me, and I know Cassie especially thinks this, I'm afraid of talking to adults (strange adults), or to people older than me. For some reason I act really awkward around them or just generally ridiculously immature. I guess it is mostly because I haven't had a lot of experience talking to people twice my age, and as Kate says, I have the mentality of a 12-year old boy, so this poses a problem. I thought I dealt with my "phobia" pretty well, and I think I'm learning some important social life skills. Like sometimes you have to talk to people you don't want to, put on an interested facade, and listen to conversations about things you don't know or care about. Plus, in the real world, not everyone is withint 4 years of your age bracket. Sometimes you have to socialize with someone 10, 20, 30, 40 years older than you. It is something that I am not all used to or comfortable with, so this experience is a good time to face my fear! (I'm starting ot get really so if I'm incoherent sorry.) i met a bunch of people, like...for example, I talked to a Nigerian who went to Cambridge, a Korean guy who owns a cellphone business in Kinshasa, and a former armyman who is engaged to classical pianist from Salmanca, Spain. Pretty cool, huh? I guess ppl older than me can be interesting.

So then today, we rented a bunch of boats with people, and went to a great sandbar in the Congo River. The river is HUGE, or at least the part we were at, and it feels like an ocean. The water, was great, the food, the peopleNow I can say I swam in the Congo River. It was a really relaxing, typical day at the beach, so I had to keep reminding myself where I was, exactly. Living this lifestyle, you kinda forget who you are, where you are, what you're doing and why you're doing it. You kinda have to remind yourself of these things constantly. While I was at Ibiza bar, it was hard to believe that so much poverty and suffering was just right next-door, and you kinda have to remind yourself of the reality of the situation. What I'm describing is by no means the "real" Congo, just to make that clear. I'll be trying to add pictures from this weekend tomorrow. I got some great ones! Goodnight!


Posted by bbrodsky 13:40 Comments (0)

Now the fun begins...

Mild Culture Shock

-17 °C

Mbote, à tous! (Mbote is Lingala for hello).

Yesterday was my first actual day of work. I’m responsible for doing 4 projects in the 2 months that I’m here, so what I did all day was basically do tons of background reading to find out what interested me. By the end of the day, I narrowed down my options. In July, I’m going to be investigating child labor in the Katanga region (where all the diamond mining is done), and debt relief and the prospect of debt-for-nature exchange in the DRC. In August, I’m going to be doing a cable on the status of intellectual property rights in the music industry, and I’ll also be putting together a report on the status and success of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in the DRC. These topics aren’t related or anything, Greg just wanted me to pick things that are underreported by the other economic officers. I plan on blogging on each of these issues, so look for that in the near future. I’ve already started to delve into them, and trust me, it is going to be really interesting. (Well, except for maybe intellectual property rights issues. The DRC clearly has bigger problems than pirated music, no offense, DJ Kabangu.)

This weekend is supposed to be really exciting. There is going to be a big party at the Ambassador's house tomorrow night to which all diplomats (not just American) who are in Kinshasa are invited. About 1200 people are expected. As interns, I am pretty sure they are going to put us to doing menial work (like guard the house and direct people to the bathroom), but we are nevertheless invited! The embassy has been planning this event for a long time, and it is considered the biggest social event of the year. I'm glad I'm here for it! All I really know about it so far is that there will be salmon imported from Norway and the wine will be free-flowing. Then on the 5th, we have a picnic and independence celebration for all Americans in Kinshasa, from 12-5. There is a talent show, a bake-off and many other events, which all have prizes! The talent show prize is supposedly to be really special; it is a $100 gift certificate to a gourmet pizza place in town for whoever wins. My roommates really want to win it, so we’re putting together a performance showcasing a mixture of African dance. They made costumes and everything. Oh, and I won’t be dancing, I’m going to be playing djembe (a traditional Congolese drum). Ha! Unfortunately, I did not have an opportunity to learn djembe during my brief stint playing percussion with the Brown Orchestra in China, so I’m basically going to improvise and hope for the best…. I hope no one who actually plays it is there, because that would be super embarrassing. My roommates also want me to play the piano (the keyboard, unfortunately) at the talent show, because that will give us a better chance of winning. Guess what I’m playing…Ginastera! Lame I know, but I won’t have to put any effort into it. I just hope the keyboard isn’t a piece of shit. If you know me well, you know I will absolutely NOT be entering the bake-off, as I am incapable of cooking absolutely anything. Sure, I’m great with mixes, but I’m pretty sure that’s against the rules of a “bake-off.” Plus, it isn’t like you can exactly buy a Pillsbury chocolate cake mix in Kinshasa.

With regard to the status of my extreme culture shock, I would say it has already gotten a lot better. We’ve been walking around a bit more, so I’ve gotten used to seeing buildings with bullet holes and street kids begging for money. After that first day though, I was so shell-shocked I couldn’t sit still or sleep. I kept replaying everything I had seen in my bed, and I was pretty disturbed by it. I was like, is this real?? Is everything I saw real?? Being so far removed from poverty, it is hard to believe people actually live without electricity 1/3 of the time, that they are have to walk traipse around for miles to go places because they couldn’t dream to afford a car, and, drink contaminated water are constantly being bitten by malaria-carrying mosquitoes and various other disease-carrying insects. We have bug spray, air-conditioning and malaria prophylaxis. What do they have? Everyone that is here with the State department and USAID gets put up really nicely, like absolutely disgustingly extravagantly compared to how the people here live. It makes me feel very guilty. It is like we’re flaunting it amongst such extreme poverty. Everyone has generators, because the power is constantly going out. To put the extravagance of this in perspective, a generator costs about $4,500…and the average Congolais makes about $350 dollars a year. Internet, satellite television and beautifully furnished homes are just a part of the package, and we get driven around everywhere. It causes much resentment toward diplomats and expats; so far I’ve definitely felt the disgusted stares and the jeering when you walk by. I would say at this point, I’ve moved down to mildly culture shocked, and extremely guilt-ridden. So much for sleep!

If you’re wondering why I haven’t put any pictures up, I’ll tell you why. Photography is actually illegal hear, unless you get a photography permit, which almost no one can afford (it is $20). As a result, the Congolese are not used to having their pictures taken, and can get very taken aback and upset if you do. Thus, it is imperative to be discrete when doing so. I’m going to take my camera out when I start feeling more comfortable.

I’m definitely going to blog about the 4th of July festivities, so look out for that soon. I don’t know who is reading this blog, but I hope you are having a good summer!

OMG Cholesterol,

Posted by bbrodsky 13:51 Comments (0)

Day 1 in Kinshasa

Extreme Culture Shock

My flight got in last night (FINALLY) at around 7:15. I knew that my boss for the summer was going to pick me up, but I had never actually met him, so I didn't know what he looked like. Going through customs was pretty painless, I had all of the right documents, so it only took about 15-20 minutes. When I walked through to the baggage claim area, I was immediately harassed by about 4 taxi drivers, but I said "Non merci, j'attends quelqu'un...quelqu'un va venir pour moi." Like a second later, I saw the big sign with the American flag with my name on it, and I was relieved. It took me about 50 minutes to get my luggage. I was told by Greg, my boss, that I should start getting used to thing taking 3 times longer than they should, because that is how things work in the Congo...from there I knew things would be interesting.

Since it the sun had already set, I couldn't really see anything. Coming in from the airport, we drove through some slums outside the city, which was the most extreme poverty I have ever seen. People were just hanging around in the streets, often running out into the road without warning. One of the first things I saw was someone throwing things on a burning tire. Greg said that this is a common sight, and that this spectacle is unfortunately very popular not only throughout the DRC, but also throughout Africa. Other than, I couldn't really get an idea of the city or anything because it was dark. I got an official tour of the house that I'm sharing with 4 other interns who are either interning with state or USAID, and it is a really nice house. It has a huge kitchen, two dining rooms, a living room, 5 bedrooms, and at least 3 bathrooms (there might be more, I don't know yet.) Also, I'm pretty sure the floor is marble. I met all of the other interns, and they are all super nice. Most of them have already been here for 2-3 weeks, so they had gotten pretty much settled. Also, they tell me they are obsessed with the TV show "Lost." I better catch up on Season 1. I was exhausted from having not slept in 2 days, andI had barely enough time to close the malaria nets when I passed out.

Greg told me he would be pick me up for work at 7:30 am...which was actually 15 minutes later the interns usually get picked up. But because it was my first day and I hadn't slept in two days, Greg said I could probably use the extra 15 minutes. When I woke up at 6:45, I immediately went to the windows to see what was around me. From what I could tell, our house is in a compound of 3 houses, and diplomats live in both of them. It is totally secured and walled, and we have bars on all the doors and the windows. The area is really pretty with lots of palm trees, and other tropical looking trees. The area we live in is called La Gombe, which is really the only safest place in the city. Basically, it is the area where all the diplomats and expats live and where all the embassies are located, and it is right on the Congo River. Our house is only about 2 or 3 streets over. Greg calls this area "La Creme de la Creme."

Greg picked me up promptly, and drove me around La Gombe a bit. He pointed out some of the other embassies, as well as some markets and restaurants. Since it was my first day, I had to go through some formalities, like get a medical briefing, a security briefing, get a cell phone, meet everyone, etc. I'm specifically interning in the ECON sector, and everyone in the section is, from what I can tell, really nice. Greg was great showing me around, and talked to me about some of the issues that the sector is particularly interested in reporting on, like the mining sector, the diamond industry, inflation, debt relief and general macroeconomic issues. I had talked with him before I came about possibly doing a cable (what they call a report) on property rights in the Congolese music industry, which I'd still be up for. I got a huge stack of introductory materials to read on the history, politics, economy and culture of the DRC, which was really helpful cause I hadn't done much research beforehand. Today was a bit of a crazy day, because 6 congressman came from D.C. to visit and brought up to update on what's going on in the DRC, which is what they call a congressional delegation. I was by myself for most of the day, but I kept myself busy with all reports and things I was given. I also spent some time reading local newspapers, of which there are about 3-4. One of the other officers in ECON told me that you kind of have to take journalism here with a grain of salt, because people are probably not being paid for their articles, so the quality of them is not great, and if they are, being paid, the person who is paying them probably wants to get a specific message across, so the articles are often really biased.

For lunch, one of the other interns in my house, Cynthia, brought me over a sandwich and we ate in the embassy. Afterward, we walked outside for a bit, and I actually got my first real chance to see downtown Kinshasa. I can't really explain it other than saying it was a HUGE culture shock, and you'll just have to take my word for it. It is extremely dirty, with garbage everywhere, most of the buildings are falling apart and decrepid, and there are a ton of people in the street, and I wasn't really sure what they were doing. Also, it is extremely dusty and generally dirty. Some of the women were carrying huge amounts of fruit on their head though! That was cool. Cindy showed me one of the main grocery stores, called Hassan et Frere, which Greg told me later, is surprisingly a Jewish grocery store. This really surprised me because the Jewish population in the DRC is practically nonexistent. They even had Kosher wines from New York and are closed Friday and Saturday because of the Sabbath. I had heard here that the food here is extremely expensive (because it is extremely expensive to import things), and this is very true. For example, a small container of cream cost about $4. I bought some oranges, shampoo and Prince cookies, (and those of you who have lived in France know what I'm talking about). I didn't know how much it totaled because I paid with dollars and they gave me Congolese francs back. I guess I'll figure that out later.

An interesting point. Dollars are used very frequently here. This is probably because the Congolese franc is pretty unstable, and inflation is rather high, probably around 20-30% a year. In fact, the prices are not even posted, you have to look at a chart to figure it out, and they can change at any minute. Also, they will not accept dollars if there is a rip, scratch or mark on them, but the Congolese francs are like ripped and falling apart, and they accept those just fine.

After that, we walked through "Le Marche des Voleurs" or the market of thieves, but fortunately, I was later told that this does not mean you are going to get robbed. There they sell artwork, African masks, and other little trinkets, which I was told is a good place to get souvenirs, because it is pretty cheap. As we walked down the market, someone was basically calling "Madame, madame, venez voir" non-stop. I have to stay, it was worse than Marrakesh, and they didn't come up with funny lines like "Bonjours les gazelles" or "Bonjour les fromages blancs." I guess I'll have to get used to the lack of creative name-calling.

When I got back to the office, I tried to get back to reading, but I couldn't really read for too long without losing concentrating and thinking about what I had just witnessed. I guess since I've never been to such an impoverished country ( I think in 2005 it was the 3rd poorest nation in the world), I really had no idea what to expect.

From what I could tell from today, I think that the living conditions and security restrictions take somewhat of a toll on the employees, especially those that have been in Kinshasa for more than a year. It can get pretty isolating, because it is sort of a restrictive lifestyle, with almost no entertainment and a very small community of peopel to socialize with. Also, just seeing the extreme poverty (and this is supposedly the nicest section in town!) day to day can get pretty depressing I imagine. I can see how it would be difficult to be here for the long term, but I think I am really going to enjoy the time I have here. I've already learned so much, about the DRC and about the state department, and it was just my first day. And by the time I get fed up, I'll be gone! After all, I'm leaving in 2 months.

I suppose that is all for now. Per the request of someone who shall remain nameless aka my mom, I was told to tone down the language from my first blog. So you will be seeing much less s* and f* words. My apologies to those you might have been offended.

Since, I have to get up early, I should probably pack it in. I'm not sure how often I'll be updating this blog, probably as often as I feel like, so I don't know how regular that will be. TTFN!


Posted by bbrodsky 14:04 Comments (0)

WTF Paris

28 hours in Brussels

I'd like to preface this first blog entry by saying that I was not going to set up a travel blog, as I find blogs in general to be creepy, self-indulgent and annoying, however, seeing as that I'm currently stuck in the Brussels airport for about 28 hours and being extremely bored, I'd figured I set this up in order to amuse myself. Also, my first experience here has been too awful and hilarious to not publish it on the internet.

Well, it seems as though nothing about getting to Kinshasa is easy. First, it was impossible to get a security clearance. I'm not going to get into that really, but I will say that basically my entire investigation was held up for weeks because someone misspelled my name. Thanks Mom and Dad for not spelling my name with an e!

In any case, I'm on my way to JFK, and everything is fine until 15 minutes before we arrive. My mom asks me if I have enough money in my wallet, so I look in my purse to get it out and check. However, the wallet is not there. I have left it at home. After enduring a rather lengthy tongue-lashing from my dad, "YOU'RE SO IRRESPONSIBLE WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU" I realized that it wasn't that bad. I still had my passport, my international vaccination certificate, copies of my insurance card. So basically I was just missing about two hundred dollars and my ATM card. However, my dad had another copy of the card, and we got more cash from the ATM at the airport. Okay, so first crisis sorta averted.

Next crisis. We get in line to check-in at Air France, and my flight has been delayed about two hours à cause de la grève in Terminal 2 at CDG. SHOCKING. I hope you sense the intense sarcasm in my voice. I thought I was done dealing with Paris manifestations greves nonsense after I left, however, I CANNOT ESCAPE IT. But okay, so big deal if my flight is delayed two hours. Well, here is the problem, on AirFrance there is only a flight from Paris to Kinshasa like once or twice a week. BIG PROBLEM. So this is what happens. They reroute me to go to Kinshasa through Brussels on Delta. But, they put me on stand-by, and I didn't actually get a seat until about 5 minutes before the plane was supposed to take off. And by the way, being on standby is very stressful. I always used to look at the standby passengers as pains in the ass, who were constantly nagging the flight agents and making themselves annoying. But now I understand why. And boy, I was the biggest pain in the ass ever, and boy did I relish that role. Asking about every 5 minutes if they had a seat for me yet.

In any case, I did get a seat...and it was in first class!! I got seat 1B, which as the pilot told me, is the best seat in the entire plane. It was freaking kick ass. However, I've never taken a flight in first class, so I was really embarassing. I didn't know how any of the chair things worked, I couldn't take out the tray, I couldn't adjust the footrest, I couldn't get the TV out, so I'm pretty sure that the flight attendants thought I was retarded. Like really. I acted positively dumbfounded when they asked for my dinner order, florentine soup, romaine salad, beef filet with mashed potatoes and olive couscous and an assortment of cheeses for dessert. I ordered a glass of wine, which I was sure they wouldn't give to me given how juvenile I was acting (and as Cassie says I act like a 5 year old when I talk to adult strangers), but they let the wine flow! I had an excellent Italian white of which I've already forgotten the name. I also bien enjoyed the selection of entertainment, which included episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Big Love as well as Horton Wears a Who and La Vie en Rose. Also, the TV freaking pops out of your armrest! Sweet.

About my 5 minutes after I took my first class seat, I looked at my new itinerary and realized that I had only 55 minutes to make the connecting flight in Brussels. So I was like, shit fuck, I ain't gonna make it. On top of that, the flight was delayed about 2 hours because of thunderstorms, and also SHOCKING, air traffic at JFK. We started off like 30th in like to take-off. After I had a panic attack about the fact that I might possibly be stuck in the Brussels airport for a week, I took out Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, who, by the way Cassie, also wrote Into Thin Air. I hadn't ever read it, and it seemed like a good airplane read, so I dove right in. It's about this guy named Chris McCandless who was basically a Thoreau/Muir wannabe and died in the Alaskan wilderness being an idiot. I knew Krakauer was going to try and glorify him, but I've read about 100 pages so far and he hasn't convinced me that McCandless was not a prideful moron.

Okay, so we land in Brussels at around 9:55 am, and my flight to Kinshasa takes off at 10:00. Obviously, I miss this connecting flight. So I'm like, okay, well let's see what happens. So I got to the baggage thingy, and my luggage does not come. So again I'm like, shit fuck, what the fuck am I going to do. I get in the flight care line for about 40 minutes, and wait for them to tell me that my baggage should have arrived. And I'm like, so why isn't it here. And the guy is like, I dunno. And I'm like WTF. Also, he tells me that I can't file a lost luggage complaint because Brussels isn't my final destination. So I'm like, fuck this is awful. So then I go upstairs to la vente to figure out how I';m going to get to Kinshasa. First, they proposed the following itinerary: Brussels to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to London, London to Nairobi, Nairobi to Kinshasa, plus I'd be on standby. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? And the the trilingual lady was like, okay well you can take the same flight tomorrow at 10 am if you want. So I'm like whatevs, but PLEASE HELP ME FIND MY LUGGAGE. So the lady was nice, and she helped track down my luggage. Apparently, they put my luggage on a different belt cause I had missed my connecting flight....I don't know why...and so it was in the lost in found. If they had lost my luggage, that would have been a catastrophe. I have no idea how they would have gotten to Kinshasa. And mind you, that is two months worth of stuff! That would have been bad times.

In any case, I'm hungry. So I sit down at a cafe and get a tea. Then I hear an American voice point to an empty chair and ask, "Is your boyfriend sitting there?" I smiled and nodded no, and he sat down. I'm really bad at judging age, like really bad, but he looked to be between maybe 55 and 65. He asked me if I spoke English, and I said yes, which was like the best decision ever. We chatted a bit, talking about traveling, politics, and how air travel is a nightmare, and I told him my about not-so-ideal predicament. This guy is a really nice guy, like a really nice retired architect Hawaiin guy, and he insists that I look into staying at a hotel for the night, and says he'll help me out. He absolutely INSISTS that I stay in a hotel, especially after the guy at the tourism desk showed us an article about how 5 women were raped at the train situation in Brussels. So I finally decide on a decent hotel that is only 59 euros a night. But the thing is, I have no way to pay for it, cause I didn't bring any euros and I only have a debit card. Plus, I don't want to withdraw a ton of euros because I won't need them past tomorrow. So get this, he OFFERS to loan me 100 euros for the hotel. How AMAZING is that? So, I'm shacked up in a hotel for the night, courtesy of this man that I just happened to meet! (I will be sending him the money back, by the way). As I said goodbye to him, he started to come at with me with a sort of European goodbye kiss (on the lips), which was uncomfortable and awkward, but I gave him my cheek and I was on my way.

Okay, so I arrive at the hotel, having taken a free shuttle from the airport to the airport hotels, and I arrive at my room. I'm feeling really gross, and I want to take a shower. Then I open my suitcase, and I notice that there is this pink gooey liquid like all over my clothes. ALL OVER. So I'm like shit, something spilled. Turns out, my ENTIRE bottle of shampoo spilled over my clothes. AGGGH. Should have listened to my mom. Damnit! Okay, so now I have to rinse out all of my clothes. But believe you me, it is not easy to rinse out an entire bottle of shampoo out of clothes. It made a shitload of bubbles. Pretty soon the sink overflowed and there were suds and bubbles everywhere. As the sink was overflowing, I moved to the shower, which went slightly better, although the suds in the shower came up to like my knee, seriously. So finally after I rinse out the last skirt, I'm thinking how can this possibly be my life.

My flight is at 10:00 am, and hopefully I'll get on it sans problemes.

Oh, and by the way, having many hours to do nothing in Kinshasa, I quickly finished Into the Wild, and surprisingly, Krakauer did convince me that McCandless isn't a total idiot, and that there is something admirable about living off the land. But whatevs, he's still lame.

So that is Day 1, on my trip to Kinshasa. I hope tomorrow goes better.


Posted by bbrodsky 04:11 Comments (0)

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