On Friday I had a shower in clean water.
Run down my face and into my mouth without worrying about bacteria, upset stomach or anything else-type clean water.
It was HEAVENLY.
The last several weeks have been all about contrast and perspective for me. Starting with our trip over Labor Day to Zongo Falls, the closest thing to a “tourist destination” near Kinshasa, and ending with my trip, with C, to the UK to visit my parents and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary – and enjoy heavenly clean water showers.
The back and forth between the “real” world (home, school, Kinshasa) and the “unreal” world (Zongo Falls resort, Brussels, London) has been eye opening. It’s no surprise that an appreciation for what you have (or don’t have) is all about perspective, but I’ve come back to that realization again and again in the last few weeks.
It started with the trip to Zongo. Approximately 30 US and UK embassy expats met in the Shoprite parking lot at 7 a.m. on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend for the 105 km drive to the falls which are southwest of Kinshasa on the Inkisi River (a tributary of the Congo River).
Unfortunately, this is a 105 km drive that takes, on average, 4 hours. The first half of the drive is marked by the hustle and bustle (and traffic) of leaving Kinshasa. Saturday is a working day here, so even at 7 a.m. there are a lot of people about, the street markets are alive with people (and a few animals) and maneuvering through it all takes talent, patience and nerves of steel.
The second half of the trip is marked by a “well maintained” dirt road. Here’s where you start needing a little perspective as “well maintained” means that it is not marred by huge pot holes, but only small ones, so you’re not crawling (as you do on some streets in Kinshasa that DO have huge pot holes) but you’re not breaking any land speed records either.
During this drive you are also passing all manner of “real” Africa. Little villages with mud huts, chickens and children running along side the car overjoyed at being smiled and waved at by the passing Americans. An overturned truck with gas pouring out of the bottom – and nearby villagers rushing to the scene with buckets to hold – in bare hands – under the stream of gas less it be wasted. Roadside markets selling beautiful bright vegetables and jars of dark honey. Women in traditional Congolese dress, small children at their sides, all with baskets or bundles on their heads. Cars and trucks with dozens of people – or a random goat – sitting on the top. It’s what you expect of “real” Africa, but, then again, it’s hard to believe you are, really, seeing it.
The contrast comes at the end after you cross over a dam and turn into a lovely resort with well maintained buildings, luxury accommodation (by most standards) and stunning natural waterfalls. When we arrived we were a little giddy as we walked into our “residence” with two bedrooms, two baths (complete with plush robes), a full kitchen and a living space – overlooking a beautiful pool on one side and the falls and jungle on the other.
Congo is not a tourist destination. It is, in fact, quite the opposite as the U.S., the U.K. and Canada (and I’d venture to guess most first world nations) issue travel warnings to citizens NOT to travel here. So to find a resort (relatively) close to Kinshasa seems unlikely, if not impossible. Yet, there it is.
And we had a wonderful weekend – enjoying the playground (which, while it didn’t exactly compare to the playgrounds C and I found on our trip to the UK, was pretty impressive compared to the playgrounds available around Kinshasa), playing Pétanque, eating, drinking, hiking to see the falls and generally enjoying the company of our traveling companions. We did have a bit of a scare when we first arrived and we were told by our server at the restaurant that he was very sorry for us because “il n’y a plus de l’eau.” Luckily, it turns out that “no more water” means something different to a man who lives near a waterfall than to those of us who do not.
Then, less than two weeks after returning home after Labor Day, C and I were off to England to celebrate with my parents and there the contrast of clean water, clean streets, fresh berries, and plentiful EVERYTHING was almost overwhelming.
To walk down the street without dust in my shoes…heavenly. To shower in clean water…sublime. To take C to the most amazing playgrounds – one right behind my parents’ flat – joyous. The problem is that I started to forget to keep my perspective. I started to feel resentful that we would have to go back to dirty feet and showers instead of baths (because I cannot seem to stop my 4 year old from wanting to drink bath water!?).
I forgot to recognize that, while a head of broccoli was 0.49 p (about $0.75) instead of $17, there were plenty of things that were more expensive in the UK (it is a VERY expensive place, after all), and, for example, while berries were plentiful, mangoes were not. I forgot to recognize that I hate the cold (and cold/wet is even worse) and I love heat. I forgot to recognize that having the luxury of household help allows me to write uninterrupted while C plays with her friends. I forgot, for a little while during that lovely clean water shower, that B is where my heart and my home is, no matter how dirty the streets that surround us.
So returning home – to B and Miller and dirty water and burning trash – was both joyous and difficult. The contrast between the London and Kinshasa is dramatic. They are almost unfathomably different. But instead of lamenting the lack of raspberries in the store, or coffee shops on every corner, in Kinshasa I’m trying, upon our return, to focus on the perspective of how lucky I was to spend 10 days with C and my parents celebrating a milestone in their lives and enjoying things which most people here will never get to experience – and relishing in the warm weather, the fresh-off-the-tree mangoes, the helping hands of two people who make my life infinitely easier every day, and having B back at my side.
And, one final note, while we were away our car was finally released from Congo customs so we now have a means to navigate this unwalkable city – a way to explore and move about with the ease and privilege afforded by a good car bearing diplomatic plates. And really, who needs raspberries when you have that?