DRC Dreaming

I seem to remember saying that I’d write about my time in Central Africa, way way back and long ago… I’ve been wanting to get to this for ages, but somehow day after day I find myself without a single second to spare for creativity.  Shame on me.  But in my defence, it’s a bit tricky to get wrapped back up in the emotion of travel that took place so many years ago.  I have so many great memories, and I will never forget what it was like when I first opened the door of our aircraft and looked out at the little airport in Kisangani, but I’m struggling with the best way to translate that feeling to these words.

Here we are now, though, ready to zip back through the years and across continents.  I was 22 years old when I first arrived and completely unable to contain my excitement of the adventures ahead of me.  I was so naive to the struggles the Congolese population has had to endure, starting out entirely enamoured with my own thrill of the unknown.  I brushed off the well-meaning concerns from my family, friends, and colleagues; now with a little more maturity I feel bad about the way I handled that.  Remember the invincibility of youth?….    I’ve mentioned in previous posts how I used to be a flight attendant, well that’s also what brought me to the Congo.  The charter airline I worked for won a contract with the United Nations, flying support for the World Food Programme.   (Want to learn more?  Follow this link: WFP in DRC )   So we brought a little propeller airplane from Calgary to the Congo – a four-day journey and quite the story on its own! – and took up residence in a local motel compound in the city.

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Dash 8 in DRC
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That’s me!
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Lots of waiting at airports – finding shade under the wing
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Home Sweet Home

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a stunningly beautiful country.  I remember dense forests and jungle, massive rivers, mountains and volcanoes and lakes with shimmering water in jewel tones.  And actual jewels.  The country has so many natural resources, including diamonds and gold, that we would joke about wandering the riverbanks in hope of “accidentally” collecting gems in the tread of our shoes!  One thing absent from my memories of the Congo are wildlife sightings.  The first couple weeks I was there my I had my eyes constantly scanning the forest along the sides of the road hoping to see some of the animals Africa is famous for, but without any luck.  A long history of hunting has meant that very little wildlife remains anywhere near the cities.

Mountains and lakes in the North East
Near Goma
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Congo River
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Daily Drive

 

As a crew, isolated from our families and the familiarity of home we became close over the months we lived in the same compound.  Most of the time two other crews were also living there; I remember crews from South Africa and also from the Netherlands, and we became our own little community inside the high walls of our home motel.  We would have our meals together outside under a thatched roof in the centre courtyard, often sitting around and sharing stories until late in the evening.  I remember one ‘art vendor’ that would come by each Saturday night who must have been friends with the gatekeeper – he was the only one ever allowed to come in and show his wares to us.  We bought paintings and carvings, bracelets and earrings, but drew the line and all gasped in horror the one time he brought us an animal skin.  He seemed genuinely surprised that none of us wanted to buy the leopard pelt he unrolled with another painting.  That really wasn’t at all what I meant when I said I wanted to see animals!

The city of Kisangani is visually fascinating as well.  Home to roughly a million people, give or take by a wide margin, history is a part of daily life as old Belgian-style buildings from the Colonial days stand scarred by bullets and rocket grenades from the decades of conflict.  Take a turn down a side street and you’ll find traditional clay and thatch structures housing modern businesses or families each speaking on cell phones. FullSizeRender 57FullSizeRender 56

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Kisangani commerce

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Kisangani Gas Station
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Kisangani
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The Congo River is part of daily life
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The sweetest little server at an outdoor restaurant.  (photo credit to Jenilee)

And now, while I’m happily reviewing photos, here are a few more of my favourites.  I’m pretty sure these images are more interesting than any words I have left anyway.

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Joy personified

Looking back on it all, I can’t quite believe I got to live life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a place so few Westerners are able to see.   I remember the military, and how we would need to stop everything we were doing twice a day to show respect during the Flag Ceremony, when the country flag was raised in the morning and lowered at night.  I remember seeing small pickup trucks full of young men and machine guns.  I remember kind and generous individuals just happy to show me their home, and being amazed that so many people just seemed to exude happiness in a way I was unaccustomed to.  I remember having to require our passengers, mainly ex-guerrilla soldiers we were bringing to the city to start new lives, to place their guns in the cargo hold of the airplane and my UN provided security/translators trying to explain why an AK-47 couldn’t stay on their lap for the flight.   I remember the friendships I formed during my many months living there.

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Jenilee and I share a taxi

 

Morocco in my rearview mirror

I’ve been back at home for a couple days now, and I’m rewinding past my time in the UK, France, and Spain to reminisce on my Morocco experiences.

Before I left, I had read a lot of different posts on Morocco and was getting increasingly worried as I read over and over again how horrible the country is for female travellers.  I’m going to have my voice as contrast, because with a little bit of prep and sensitivity this is the kind of place that any adventurer should aim to see.  What prep do I mean? Simple things like expecting to have shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and guides vying for your attention because that’s the way they know how to earn their living.   And knowing it’s best to be polite because a quick smile will make your decline that much easier for them to accept.  Think ahead about what you’re going to be wearing while you’re there and do your best to fit within some of the local custom.  I doubt you’ll fool anyone into thinking you were born there, but the effort to show respect in this regard will end up making your experience so much better.

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This is one of my more ‘revealing’ Morocco outfits, and I still generally covered my shoulders with the scarf when I was in town.  I definitely got more propositions wearing this than when I had on a long loose dress with sleeves.

Arriving in Marrakech is a breeze, the airport is small and easy to navigate.  If you have a ride pre-arranged you’ll find them just outside the door after you pick up you luggage (assuming it arrives! :S)  I chose to take the city bus and I’d recommend that for anyone wanting to travel cheaply. Assuming your accommodation is near the main plaza get on bus #19 across the parking lot of the airport, and it will drop you off right across from Koutoubia Mosque and the Jemaa el fna plaza.  Expect to pay 30 Moroccan Dirhams (MAD) or 50 for a round trip if you’ll be back to the airport within 2 weeks.

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Wander the courtyards
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Sharpen your bargaining skills with locals
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Go explore the colourful market stalls
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Visit a women’s collective for pure Argan oil products and a glimpse of how it’s made.
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Spend the afternoon browsing artisan markets

Rooftop patios and mint tea are a couple more things I’ll forever associate with Morocco now, as both factored into every single day I was in the country – generally more than once a day.  Soooooo good!IMG_1367

The landscapes in this country are much more diverse than I had expected, so that’s an enticing bonus for anyone that gets bored easily (like me!) as there’s always something new to see.  Desert sand dunes, stunning beaches, lush forests, arid mountains, and more. IMG_1370

A stunning place with generous and friendly people, great food, rich history, vibrant colours, and so much to do.   Morocco is a great place to explore for a while!   I have so much more I could say and share, so if you’re planning on going there yourself please send me a message.  It’s fun for me to relive my travels by passing on suggestions!

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Find fun ways to beat the heat
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Watch the sunset from a hilltop
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Explore the ancient city of Fez ( also spelled Fes)
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Walk the blue streets of Chefchaouen

Let me know your favourite Morocco experience – I’d love to hear about it!

– Ali

 

We need to talk…

Morocco, I don’t know how to say this nicely, so I’ll just blurt it out.   We’ve had a lot of fun over the past couple weeks –  I really like you and you’ll always hold a special place in my heart – but I think we need to end our time together.

I’ve been sensing an increasing restlessness in myself again, and I recognize this feeling by now.  Even though I was regularly on the move and in new cities I found I was less enamoured with it all and more quickly worn out by the minor irritations.  (Here’s where I’d say “It’s not you, it’s me” !)    It became more of a challenge to meet the barrage of requests and demands and invitations with a genuine smile; and the fun of dressing differently dissipated.  But really, I need to say again how great this experience overall has been.  Yes, I had someone make a comment to me about every 15 seconds any time I walked down the street, but in general these comments were benign and would end the instant I said “non, merci”.  In that sense the shop keepers and wanna-be guides were more polite than in other countries I’ve been.  (“You’re really great, Morocco, but we’re just too different”) 


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One thing I will always love about travel is witnessing a bit of local customs. Not only the traditions protected from ages ago and now dressed up for tourism, but also the unique interpretations on global trends. I noticed right away that Moroccan Millenials are very fashion savvy.  An example, Birkenstock sandals are a worldwide trend, even on my feet now. But the interpretation of this trend is so different here, with guys wearing the shiny patent leather sandals in styles that are ONLY sold in women’s sections at home. (If you want an idea of what I mean, look here: Birkenstock Morocco FB page.)

On the traditional side, I spent an afternoon luxuriating in a Hammam, a Moroccan public bathhouse.  These have been around for eons and it’s an incredible way to rejuvenate.  I was going to say ‘relax’ but in my experience that’s not very true.  Here’s why:  It began with an attendant guiding me back to a dressing room and showing me the hook where I could leave my clothes; she gave me two towels and said she’d be back in a moment.  I put on my bikini and then followed her a to a warm steamroom, all eucalyptus and orange blossom and dim light.  Right away she took away the towels and told me to remove my top, and as I stammered and stalled she explained it was normal… So off it went. When in Rome, right??   After a spray of water, she covered me head to toe in black goop that smelled amazing and had me lie down on the marble bench in the steamroom for 10 minutes.  When she returned it was another shower to remove the soap, followed by the removal of all.my.skin. Thankfully after a few minutes I got used to the scrub and stopped imagining I stumbled into a horror movie, and instead imagined the glowing new skin this should reveal.  Seriously.  The goal in Hammam is to scrub until the skin peels off in long strips!  My reward for enduring the filleting was another head to toe coating of scented Argan oil with a mini back massage, and then I was ready to rejoin the world with my new gleaming skin.

I brought my JLo glow to Tangier, my last city in Morocco and only an hour by boat from Spain.  It’s a great city, but I didn’t see most of the highlights as I had already mentally checked out.  Instead I spent a great day chatting over coffee with a fellow traveller, wandered through another Medina for a bit, and I indulged in one last cup of Moroccan mint tea that I will miss dearly.  And with that final smooch my breakup with Morocco is complete.  Au Revoir Morocco, and Hola Spain!