Monday, May 27, 2013

Running along the mighty Congo


               KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo – We flew into the other Congo, capital Brazzaville, at dawn, and then took a slow boat across the Congo River to Kinshasa. It had been five or six years since I had been to Kinshasa. I remember the trip well. On the way in, I walked into a mob scene at the airport (like everyone else) and paid a $50 fee to a service that got me out of there in one piece; on the way out, I walked into the airport with a leg pouch containing $1400, and by the time I was on my flight the leg pouch was no longer on my leg, the money gone.

                So I liked arriving by boat.

                There was no crowd to greet us -- just dignitaries and their security details -- and we slipped into waiting cars and raced through the city with a police escort to the Hotel du Fleure. The building rose 22 stories on a high point above the Congo. My room was on the 19th floor, and I looked down on the city from the vantage point of a hawk.

                I eyed a running route under the canopy that hugged the river, laced up my shoes, and I was off. I felt almost wobbly – I had slept the last two nights on planes (Washington-Geneva and then Geneva-Paris-Brazzaville). But I figured I should follow my own advice about running in the morning after a long flight to fight jet lag, or pay the price (of jet lag or scorn from my friends).

After a few minutes on a main road, I took a left, then a right, and I settled on an easy pace down a near-empty road of privilege. Cut grass lined the road. High walls obscured properties. Every 50 yards a man or a woman, wearing blue uniforms, swept the road with a palm frond. Tiny leaves went skittering under my feet. I was running on clean asphalt in a city with few functioning sewers.

I passed the British Embassy, then the German, and soon came upon a roadblock. I waved to a soldier, who stood up and greeted me with a rifle. “Go back,” he said. “No passing.”

                I hung a left and as I crested a hill, the Congo spread out before me. It was muddy brown, seemingly a mile wide. Parts of the river are 700 feet deep, and there are more than 700 species of fishes in it, and scientists say there surely are many, many more.

Even from the road, the river, which passes through the Congo rainforest, seemed extraordinarily powerful and dangerous. It is Africa’s second longest river (the Nile is first) and is the  largest by volume (which has helped spur dreams and plans to build a hydroelectric dame called Inga III that could power most of sub-Saharan Africa.) I am not a good swimmer and I started imagining preposterous scenarios like falling off a boat in the middle of the Congo and trying to swim to one side. I was sure the current would sweep me away and I would be gone forever.

I kept to the middle of the road. Ahead, I heard a commotion and saw dozens and dozens of schoolchildren dressed in identical blue and white uniforms. They were crossing the road, and as I came closer, several shouted out at me. I ran into their midst, skirting them slowly, and some giggled and took a few steps as if to follow me. But the gaze of a stern headmaster spoiled those plans, and soon I had the road to myself again.

I ran for a few miles more and was about to turn toward the hotel when a tiny blue bird darted in front of me. I stopped and looked into the grass. There it was – an indigo bird. I watched it hop and flit around the grass, and then it settled next to three others. I stood and watched them, transfixed at their beauty.

The indigo birds flew off, and I started off again. I didn’t know when I would see such birds or the Congo River again, but I was feeling more euphoric than sad. I had stolen some wonderful moments by the river, some balm perhaps to temper the memories of my last trip here.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

In Romania, a boy on the streets at 5 a.m.


 BUCHAREST, Romania –The sight of the boy shocked me. Maybe it was because of the focus of our trip. Maybe it was the hour, just 5 a.m. Or maybe it was how he smiled at me. All I knew was that just five steps into my run here, I stopped when I saw him.

He was of Roma descent; his clothes were a dull color, dulled by dust. His eyes almost shone. He couldn’t have been older than five. Nearby, a woman and a young girl were sitting on a large piece of cardboard, their bed, against a building. All were fully alert. I stood just a few feet from the boy, expecting him to beg for money. He didn’t. We just looked at each other, and he smiled. In a few seconds, I started again, and he gave me a shy wave. I waved back.

We had traveled to Bucharest partly to learn more about the Roma people, also known as gypsies. The night before we had met about 10 Roma college graduates who had received scholarships and who spoke of their great aspirations to succeed in a variety of fields – diplomacy, architecture, development, law. We left feeling very hopeful of their futures.

But the boy was another story. I turned a corner and I saw another family of Roma, and then a third, all awake, and several children moving around with great ease as if the streets of Bucharest were their livingroom, even at 5 a.m.

I turned off the narrow streets and descended down a darkened path into a park. Birds called out from the trees, frogs from the ponds. Birds always seem the noisiest just before dawn; Bucharest’s birds were deafening.

And yet, on park benches along the way, many homeless slept right through the calls of the urban wild, blankets pulled to their ears to ward off the chill, and perhaps the sound. There was other movement here, too. Every few minutes, men emerged from the shadows as I ran by, and it felt like I was in a medieval European city with the darkness hiding secrets.

In my back pocket was a map of the city, which had large areas of green, delineating the city’s numerous parks. I stopped under a light to find my location. I had gone from one park to a second, making several zig-zags, and yet I felt strangely at home. I felt confident of my way even though I had never been here before.

I ran around the Palace of the Parliament, a grand structure in neoclassical architectural style (and built with thousands of tons of marble from Transylvania) that sits atop a hill, surrounded by a park and wide boulevards. Weeds grew on the lower lawns. There wasn’t a guard in sight.

Then, I headed back to my hotel, taking solace in the parks. The birds had mostly gone quiet. The sky had started to light up. I looked up and saw a long bright pink contrail from a plane. It was a startling vision, like a dash of lipstick on the sky, and I ran on, looking up every few seconds. I was getting used to unusual sights in Bucharest.

Near my hotel, I passed the spots where I had seen the Roma families. They had left, removing all evidence of their presence, including their cardboard. I wondered about that boy. I wished I had seen him again. I’m not sure what I would have done, or why seeing him would be better than not. But it felt like a loss. Perhaps because the shock of seeing him had worn off, and I knew his future, like that of so many street kids around the world’s cities, was bleak. I returned to my room with my thoughts stilled and my mood saddened.