‘AT LAST,' I think, as a boulder hurtles towards me.
Go to Sicily and you expect to have a bag snatched by a passing scooter rider. On some pub night in Ireland you're bound to consume one too many pints of Guinness and regret it in the morning. Try to use your French in Paris and you'd be disappointed if it wasn't criticised at least once. I'd already been arrested in the Congo, so getting stoned in Palestine was clearly another rite of passage. And I was ready for it.
Palermo, Dublin and Paris don't figure in my current itinerary, but Jerusalem and Kinshasa are definitely on the list. Along with Bogota in Colombia, Port-au-Prince in Haiti, Harare in Zimbabwe and a handful of other destinations that don't rival Melbourne and Vancouver for ‘world's most liveable city'. I've always loved travelling to the edgy places. A few years ago I wrote a book called Bad Lands (Lonely Planet, 2007). I started with George Bush's ‘Axis of Evil' – Iraq, Iran and North Korea – and then added six other countries which for assorted reasons had been labelled ‘bad': Afghanistan, Albania, Burma, Cuba, Libya and Saudi Arabia. I went as a regular tourist, no special care or protection, and hardly surprisingly, well to me anyway, I had a great time.
There's no shortage of bad places in the world, but this time I set out on a circuit of countries that for assorted reasons had gone off the rails. Or perhaps had never been on them. Economically or politically, each of these countries had TROUBLE written in their description, usually in capital letters.
I've always loved those bad, troubled, or even simply obscure, ignored places. They were the starting point for Lonely Planet and they've always been the books of which I've been most proud. Our very first book – a guide to the Asia Overland Trip, aka ‘the hippie trail' – featured Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our second book on South-East Asia included Burma, Portuguese Timor (about to be invaded by the Indonesians) and Laos (where the Pathet Lao were about to displace the Royalists).
In South-East Asia, Cambodia and Vietnam had already disappeared off the tourist radar and, like Laos, would not reappear for a decade and a half. For many travellers there's always a competition to be first on the scene and my first visit to the recently reopened Vietnam in 1991 was filled with confusion over where we were allowed to go and which doors were still shut tight to foreigners. A year later in Cambodia the open list was even more limited and even just wandering away from the central temples in Angkor Wat could be dangerous. Get on the wrong train in Cambodia in those days and it could easily be your last train ride, as sadly it would be for a number of backpackers including Australian David Wilson in 1994.
Twenty years on, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are all wide open, although too much alcohol and too many party drugs can be just as great a danger as renegade revolutionary remnants used to be. In other troubled locations the doors swing open and shut so frequently they might as well be revolving, but I'd be disappointed if Lonely Planet ever lost its reputation for being the first through any door, as soon as it scrapes even slightly ajar.
ISRAEL AND PALESTINE, individually and collectively, are clearly top contenders for a position on my new troubled list. Like Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby they're increasingly hard to separate, even when they both want to. Although it takes a week for the first stone to head in my direction – smaller and less purposely aimed ones would follow on two occasions – an assortment of the other clichés about travel in the region have lined themselves up even before this first rock comes my way.
I'd flown from Australia via Abu Dhabi to Amman in Jordan and an hour after my passport is stamped into the country I am stamped out again at the Allenby Crossing into...well where am I being stamped into? Is this Palestine? Or the West Bank? Or the Occupied Territories? Or even Judea and Samaria, if I'm willing to accept the opinion of the most extreme right-wing Israelis, who genuinely believe the borders of Israel should extend all the way to the Euphrates River, currently in Iraq.
To my mind I'm entering Palestine, but the process is totally Israeli and almost immediately it seems they're bent on drawing attention to all their image problems. First the bags are hauled out of the bus luggage compartment and tossed disdainfully on the ground while we're kept on the bus. Then there are the young people lounging around in jeans toting big guns. Our first step towards entering wherever we are entering is to be put through security, a process that always involves a hint of indignity. Here it's laid on with a shovel.
The shoddy queues and the boxes the officials sit in shout the message clearly: ‘You're a Third World people and we're giving you a Third World experience.' First World visitors to Israel presumably all arrive at Tel Aviv airport. My progress through this arrival portal halts at the desk where I'm quizzed on why I'm here, where I'm going, who I'm seeing. I've got an Israeli friend's name, phone number and address in Tel Aviv at the top of my list, but that doesn't do anything and I'm passed on to a second window and then a second interview with a very young soldier who soon tires of looking at a long list from my laptop of ‘we'll go here, we'll stay there, no we'll add this, we'll walk to here, we'll drive there.' Eventually getting in to wherever I'm getting in to takes well over an hour. And indignity? I'll soon experience worse.
I spend the first couple of days in Bethlehem, close to that famous Wall, the much talked about, much photographed division between Israel and Palestine (or is it Israel and the West Bank?). Is it just the Wall, the Barrier or even the Fence? Or is it the Separation Wall, the Security Wall, the Segregation Wall or even the Apartheid Wall?
It depends on who you talk to, but it would be difficult to find a weirder example of the Wall's idiosyncrasies than at Rachel's Tomb. Bethlehem and biblical childbirth were connected well before the virgin one. Rachel was the wife of the Old Testament prophet Jacob and died giving birth en route to Hebron from the biblical Shechem, which might be Nablus today. You can read about it in Genesis. Jacob installed a pillar at her resting place and since Jews, Christians and Muslims all revered her the tomb was a pilgrimage site for all three religions. It survived right through the Byzantine and Islamic periods, the Crusader interludes and the current building comes courtesy of the Ottomans. In 1841 Sir Moses Montefiore – English, Jewish and wealthy – financed the restoration of the Ottoman dome and the addition of a vestibule and a mihrab. This was intended to mollify the local Muslims who were getting fed up with increasing numbers of Jewish pilgrims interrupting ceremonies.
Fast forward a century and a half and in 1995 an Israeli military camp was plonked down next to the tomb and three years later the army destroyed the Montefiore dome and vestibule. Bad, but much worse was to come. In 2006 a finger of the wall was extended down into Bethlehem to enclose the tomb and cut if off from the town. From above it looks like a tentacle of the spaghetti monster, or one of those weird American electoral boundaries drawn to ensure a candidate of a certain racial type gets elected. For Palestinians and Muslims it meant the tomb was now off limits. For the businesses that had sprung up around the tomb it meant bankruptcy.
Later I read a lot more on Rachel's Tomb and, of course, there is more than one side to the story. There were regular Palestinian attacks on the tomb prior to the Israeli military's arrival. And was the dome and vestibule destroyed or was it enclosed within a larger building so the original structure is not visible? Read Jewish websites and you'd think it was never Muslim. Read Muslim ones and the Jews never played a role.
I start my visit to Rachel's Tomb from near the Bethlehem Intercontinental Hotel. The Wall is picturesquely painted on this stretch and I walk along its convoluted path until I reach the checkpoint gate into Israel. It's even more like a cattle shed than the Allenby Bridge border crossing, although I get through much faster because there's no queue, only a handful of people walking through, like me. On the Israeli side I backtrack a hundred metres or so towards Bethlehem where another gateway blocks the road leading around the Wall to the tomb. I'm not to travel the final few hundred metres on foot, but fortunately I hitch a ride in minutes so I don't have to wait half an hour for a bus.
After the tomb's annexation ordinary tourists were not allowed to visit, but that seems to have ended, although I am the only non-Jewish tourist there. Nor am I issued with a kippa (in Hebrew, yarmulke in Yiddish) on entry, presumably wearing the Jewish skullcap would indicate that you agreed the tomb had become a strictly Jewish site and you'd acquiesced with their takeover. In fact a polite gentleman does come over and offer me a skullcap with the suggestion that it would ‘help me to fit in'. I say I prefer to remain an outsider. From the tomb I manage to hitch a ride back and it's a quick march into Palestine. No security or checks in that direction.
It's just outside Ramallah when I am finally stoned. I've dropped in to the former Arafat-Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) compound, nearing completion of a major renovation and rebuild. Arafat's tomb, guarded by two soldiers, is open to the public so I stand beside it for a photograph. From there the rest of the day goes somewhat awry. The plan is to go to the Qalandia checkpoint, the major gateway between East Jerusalem and Ramallah. It's five kilometres from the PLO compound and I've walked one and a half before I grab a share taxi, somehow I've got myself on a road heading in the right direction, but it's not the main road. A kilometre closer, and still a couple to go, the minibus U-turns and heads back, so I jump out.
At this point I come up to a stretch of the Wall, but the road and the direction towards the checkpoint diverge, the Wall continues on the correct bearing. So I leave the road, chased by three angry dogs, and head across country, following the Wall. Or rather, following the outer wire fence; the Wall is well back behind two fences. There's no path along the Wall so I pick my way through scrub, scrambling over rocks, finding faint meandering tracks for a spell. I come upon more dogs, in fact a great pack of them, I pick up a few rocks in case they're as unfriendly as the previous batch, but they just slope off.
By this time the Wall has disappeared, it's just the wire fences, and there's a settlement way off in the distance, and the direction I have to follow to the checkpoint dives down into a valley – correctly here it would be called a wadi – and up the other side into a populated area, the Qalandia refugee township. The stream flowing along the bottom of the wadi is a trickle, only a half metre or so wide.
As I climb up the other side some kids – big kids – wave at me and then
start hurling those rocks. It's been a while since I've had rocks thrown at me, but when I approach them, hands up in surrender and waving my Australian passport, they're quickly apologetic. One, who speaks a little English, accompanies me through the township, becoming steadily more apologetic as we go. Unfortunately his English isn't good enough to explain what this was all about, was I mistaken for a stray Israeli from the settlement across the valley and behind the fences? It's a change from the evidence of Israeli settlers hurling bricks at Palestinians I'd seen the day before in Hebron, but it certainly wouldn't have been so amusing if one of the rocks had found its target.
The Wall at the crossing point sports a classic artwork gallery so I photograph the checkpoint wall and the line of vehicles funnelling in to Jerusalem and grab a minibus back to Ramallah. Rock-throwing Palestinians are quickly balanced out by the other variety, I field a hearty ‘welcome to Palestine' from a passing car and when I stop into a bakery for a cinnamon roll I'm waved out without paying and a ‘welcome'. It's the number one English word I'll encounter during my Palestine visit.
Spotting the settlement near the Wall, facing the Qalandia refugee township from across the valley, is a reminder of how to recognise a settlement. The houses are clustered together, often on hilltops or along ridges, they're encircled by wire fences (these are gated communities), they do not have water tanks on the roofs (settlers get guaranteed mains water and use on average three hundred litres per person per day, Palestinians get no guarantees – hence the storage tanks – and get by on fifty), and the roofs are red (Palestinian roofs may be red, but not always). Finally, of course, there's no minaret in sight in a settlement.
I STARTED ON another length of the short swimming pool, contemplating as I turned at the deep end that this was where the hotel manager, Mr Brown, had found Dr Philipot's body. The doctor had slashed his wrists and then cut his throat as well. Just to make sure, the hotel manager had observed.
Of course Mr Brown, the manager of the Hotel Trianon, and the dead doctor, Secretary for Social Welfare for Papa Doc (President Francois Duvalier), were both fictional characters in Graham Greene's The Comedians(1966). The pool was real enough; it was even full of water, unlike when Mr Brown found the corpse huddled under the diving board at the deep end. The hotel, with its fairytale gingerbread architecture was equally genuine, although its name is the Oloffson. Apart from changing the name, Greene had hardly altered a thing.
The Hotel Oloffson is a gentle kilometre uphill from the Champs de Mars, the centre of Port-au-Prince, capital of Haiti. Papa Doc, the villain in The Comedians, died in 1971 and his equally venal and brutal son, Baby Doc (Jean-Claude), took over. In 1986, Baby Doc was hustled off to Paris for a comfortable, but now interrupted, retirement. And then things got really bad.
It seems so unfair that Haiti should be the basket case of the Caribbean, indeed of the whole western hemisphere. Most descriptions of the half-an-island nation start with the note that this is the poorest country in the Americas, a place right down there with the most ramshackle African nations when it comes to hard times. Yet Haiti's difficult birth was a glorious adventure. It began with a slave uprising led with consummate skill by the unforgettably named Toussaint L'Ouverture. Then there's French perfidy: the colonial power invites the black leader to a peace conference and instead spirits him away to chilly exile in France, where he dies.
That doesn't end the uprising. L'Ouverture's generals, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, continue the struggle. Tropical diseases start devastating the French forces and in 1804 the Haitians achieve the impossible: Haiti becomes the second modern nation, after the US, to break free of colonial control, and the first black republic to boot.
Unhappily, things start to go wrong almost immediately. The Haitian economy is a shambles after thirteen years of bitter warfare. The French are in no mood to recognise their former possession, having lost Canada to the British forty years earlier and now their wealthiest colony, they give up on the New World and flog off Louisiana to the newly independent US. Not until 1825 does France recognise Haiti and only when the penurious Haitians agree to pay the former slave owners sixty million francs compensation. It was the sugar plantations that had made the country so important to France, and the crippling debt to their merciless former slave-masters wasn't finally paid off until after World War II.
Britain, despite its own antipathy to slavery, doesn't recognise Haiti until 1833 and, most shamefully, the US withholds recognition for fifty-eight years. Terrified that recognising a nation founded on a slave uprising might give the wrong idea to its own slaves, it was not until 1862 that the US, led by Abraham Lincoln, recognised Haiti. As a result international trade routes were closed off to the impoverished Haitians until this time.
The outside world may have made it tough for the impoverished Haitians, but the Haitians didn't manage things too well themselves. Dessalines realises that he needs white expertise to get the economy moving again and, not unlike Mugabe and the white population of Zimbabwe, invites white settlers to return, then changes his mind. He massacres almost every white in the country. He distrusts the half-caste mulattoes who had already achieved quasi-freedom from French rule and then becomes equally unpopular with a large slice of the black population when he tries to force labourers back into near slavery in order to get the plantations working again. The idea that independent Haiti will be a republic has also gone out the window, Dessalines has announced that he's now Emperor Jacques I. It's no surprise that in 1806 he is assassinated.
Dessalines' death doesn't sort things out. Instead, a civil war follows with the country divided between the black north, led by Henri Christophe, and the mulatto south, led by Alexandre Pétion. In Haitian terms, the Duvaliers represent some sort of stability. The twenty years after Baby Doc departs for his Parisian retirement see a revolving door of military rulers interspersed with a chorus line of hapless and/or greedy elected leaders. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the wonder boy of 1991, is in and out within a year, brought back with American backing and military muscle in 1994, re-elected in 2000 and kicked out again in 2004, perhaps with US assistance.
‘They brought him back in 1994,' the street gossip says, ‘they took him away in 2004.' He ends up in exile in South Africa. Throw in an economic blockade (as punishment for dumping Aristide on the first occasion), a boat people exodus (many of them ending up with a spell in Guantánamo Bay in the pre-terrorism era), gang warfare in the capital's festering slums and a steadily declining – make that plummeting – economy and it's no wonder tourism to Haiti doesn't just dry up, it entirely disappears.
So I was a rare swimmer in the Oloffson's famous literary swimming pool on my first visit and possibly an even rarer one when I made a return trip. On my first visit to Haiti I'd flown in to Port-au-Prince from Miami, collected my bag and taken a taxi through Champs de Mars in the centre of town, and up to the Oloffson. This time I came in on a bus from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the nation that occupies the other side of the island collectively known as Hispaniola. I wanted to experience the difference between the two Caribbean nations. Why should Spanish-speaking DR have a per capita income six times as high as Creole-speaking Haiti? And a life expectancy ten to fifteen years longer? Glance down on Haiti from space and you can see the difference – grinding poverty in Haiti has led to one of the world's worst cases of deforestation. The DR forests peter out at the border.
As if its tragic history, economic calamities and succession of bad rulers weren't enough, it seemed as if some malevolent deity couldn't resist giving the country a good kick when it was already down. Since my first visit the massive 2010 earthquake had caused huge damage in Port-au-Prince and flattened buildings in many other centres around the country. Remarkably the ramshackle old Oloffson had come through shaken and stirred, but otherwise unscathed. Perhaps the statue of Baron Samedi, sporting his black top hat and guarding the front of the building, had kept the temblor at bay. The Baron, with his strong rum, pungent cigars, dark coffee and black roosters to sacrifice, is the voodoo (correctly vodou) master of the dead and manager of cemeteries. He's an iwa, one of the spirits who communicate between Gran Met, the ‘Great Master', and everyday Haitians, and he's emphatically not to be messed with. He can also be a charming, romantic figure and a painting by the naive artist Gerard, which I'd bought on my first visit, showed the Baron dancing nimbly in the graveyard, his symbols scattered around him, and accompanied by a trio of musicians and five comely ladies.
Downhill around the Champs de Mars the post-earthquake story was far less happy. On my first visit the National Palace had looked like a big white wedding cake, ready to wilt under the tropical sun. Now it was a wedding cake that some careless caterer had dropped on the floor and from a fairly substantial height. Across the road the heroic statue of Toussaint L'Ouverture and the iconic figure of the conch-blowing Marron Inconnu, the ‘Unknown Slave,' had survived, although for two years after the quake they'd disappeared from sight, surrounded by a tent city of displaced survivors. Just weeks before my second visit that encampment had been cleared away, although thousands more tents still remain around the Champs de Mars. Aristide's unfinished Haitian bicentenary tower also came through undamaged, looking like an ugly oil derrick; construction was halted when Aristide was despatched for the second time in 2004. ‘It's a pity that didn't fall down as well,' was an opinion I heard more than once.
Just uphill from the Champs de Mars the Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral was also in ruins. Whether to rebuild the current construction – a European-looking church built between 1884 and 1914 – or level it and start with a whole new cathedral is still under discussion. The city's real architectural tragedy, however, is midway between the ruined National Palace and the equally ruined Notre Dame Cathedral. Externally the Sainte Trinité Episcopalian Cathedral was a blocky, dull-looking building. Internally it housed a superb survey of Haitian art, the thirteen naive artists who had painted the church walls in 1950-51 would become recognised as the country's artistic virtuosos, but the quake brought it all down. Sadly those masterpieces won't be recreated, only one of the original painters survives and Préfète Duffaut is already eighty-nine years old.
Quake or not, galleries full of recent paintings and block-long walls of street art underline that Haitian art is still the most vibrant and alive in the Caribbean. There's no shortage of musical passion around the Caribbean, but the rara bands and other music styles of Haiti also have an enthusiasm and intensity that's unmatched and the Oloffson is the place to sample it. Most Thursday nights the hotel's resident band, RAM, takes the stage close to the witching hour. The band is named after Richard A Morse, the hotel's manager, and although he was away on my return visit it's his wife, Lunise, who's the real front to the band in any case. Behind her gyrating vocals are two equally athletic ladies, amply endowed and ready to shake everything they have. Only then do you come to the twelve-piece band, including my favourites: the three players who periodically put down whatever they are playing and pick up the rara horns. There's no twists, turns or fancy controls to a rara horn, just a straightforward funnel varying from short through medium to extra-long and sometimes played two or three at a time. Quite apart from sounding impressive they also look terrific.
So the art survives, the music still rings out and something else had crawled back in to Haiti post-quake: ex-rulers. First Baby Doc turned up from his long Parisian exile, just in time for the 2011 presidential election although nobody suggested that he might like to run. He soon found himself under house arrest although, a year later, it seems to be a rather relaxed form of custody. ‘Hang around the Pétionville mansion, don't take too many trips around the country and perhaps at some time we can talk about returning some of the money you stole,' seem to be the rules. Then, even closer to the election date, Aristide rolled in as well. Nobody suggested he might make it third time lucky.
HEWA BORA (GOOD wind in Swahili) Air whisks me from Kinshasa to Kisangani, VS Naipaul's town at the ‘bend in the river'. I find a room at Les Chalets Hotel, walk around town, even find an ATM and extract a supply of US dollars. There are two Congos and I'm in the Democratic Republic one, not the merely Republic one, and in Congo DRC the routine is get US dollars and then change a smaller amount into Congolese francs. There are plenty of pavement money dealers sitting around, fronted by bricks of 500 Congolese franc notes, the biggest denomination. Swapping US$20 nets you thirty-six of those 500 FC notes, about as much as you can comfortably carry. So the procedure is infrequent ATM stops for US dollars then frequent stops to convert the dollars into francs. Small purchases are all made in francs, big ones in dollars.
I take some photos of supermarket signs and a couple of kids are pleased to be included. I stroll on around town, past the Hewa Bora office, down to the riverside, back up to the town and I'm almost back at the hotel when I stop to photograph the sign for the Champs Elyse bar. Two minutes later I'm ‘detained' – it's hard to call this an arrest – by a big guy waving an identity card that seems to show he's someone important. He's complaining loudly about something which I presume, no, I know, is photographs. I was well aware that taking photographs can be a big problem in the Congo, so I'd been cautious, using a small camera, whipping it out and quickly putting it away again, but I've clearly overstepped the line. Two ‘accomplices' – or are they just passersby? – jump onboard, there's lots of pushing and threatening and the same things are said over and over again.
This is obviously going nowhere and I'm beginning to think that the longer we stand here the more passersby we're going to attract. Clearly the opportunity to jump in and harass a blanc is too good to resist.
‘Let's go to the police station,' I suggest and off we go. The uniformed police in the large empty area in front– plus one guy cooped up in a small cell – look absolutely bemused by us and we're still getting nowhere except with a bigger crowd. I'm marched to an office round the side where the head cop, in a suit and with a mate, are watching Congo play Cameroon on TV. I enthuse when Congo goes 1-0 up, although I'm unsure if that helps. An assortment of people come and go, including the original three, although not all at once. The head cop is watching the footy game with one eye and trying to phone somebody at the same time, whether about me or not I'm unsure.
Just before I was stopped I was thinking, ‘back at the hotel in a few minutes and the first thing I need is a drink, I'm thirsty.' So by this time I'm very thirsty and I suggest to the guy who marched me round to the office that perhaps he could go buy me a boisson, I give him 1000 FC (a dollar) and off he goes to get it. Of course all this drama is revolving around my not having a photo permit and although I've suggested that I'm quite happy to get one there isn't much opportunity to do so when it's a Sunday afternoon and I've just arrived in town. A US$500 charge for a photo permit is proposed at one point, probably by one of the three original jokers.
More people come and go including an attractive younger woman and after some conversation I'm told to go with her. She turns out to be the Chef de Division Unique from the Hotel de Ville, (town hall in French) and somewhere up the local power ladder. Or perhaps just a buck passed from the top cop? So we go outside and get in her car. She's driving (and soon nearly collides with a motorcycle), there's another guy in the front, me in the back with a guy on each side of me. She's got my camera. We drive here, we drive there, and finally we drive by the Hotel de Ville where I'm told I should return tomorrow morning to get a photo permit. Then I'm dropped back to my hotel. The only final hassle being that one of the initial threesome took the photocopy of my passport and visa (I'm not stupid enough to carry the real thing) and didn't return it, so I have to get another for Mrs Senior Official. Fortunately I have a few. All this has taken well over an hour, perhaps two hours. I must admit that after the first three troublemakers, everybody else has been as polite and friendly as you could ask. Getting arrested in the Congo has been a minor hassle, just a little sitting around and waiting.
Nothing special, says Joe Wasilewski, an NGO worker whom I bump into at the hotel bar. He's had a similar police station interlude when he was going out to the Wagenia Falls, Kisangani's big tourist attraction. Joe is doing some sort of research project out in the sticks about one hundred and twenty kilometres from Kisangani – ‘it used to take twelve to thirteen hours to drive there, now the road is better and it only takes nine. Of course a couple of hours is spent waiting for ferries and stuff.'
Jean Marie Bergesio, the exuberant Belgian patron of Les Chalets also agrees that a visit to a police station is part of the Congo experience, but insists that photo permits are ‘absolutely not necessary, it's just another way of trying to make money.'
He's been here for forty-three years, as has his father before him, and has clearly seen it all. ‘It's been up and down,' he reports, ‘and currently it's slightly up,' he makes a gentle incline motion. I mention A Bend in the River and he says ‘Naipaul was here for a year.' On the wall at reception there's a painting of the Belgian paratroopers parachuting in to Stanleyville – as Kisangani used to be known – in 1965.
Next morning I'm at the Hotel de Ville bright and early and soon find the office where I can get a photo permit, except the chef isn't there yet. There are six people lounging outside the chef's office, but no chef. I'm about to depart when the chef appears and, surprise, surprise, it's Lydie Aganano, Mrs Senior Official from yesterday. Another endless circular conversation (stretching my limited French) takes place, the gist of which seems to be that in fact they don't issue photo permits in Kisangani, why hadn't I got one before I came here?
After more talk we jump in Ms Aganano's car with her offsider and drive round the corner to the Kisangani press office where, very soon afterwards, another chef appears and there's more circular conversation before he starts writing me out a photo permit by hand. There clearly isn't such a thing as a photo permit form. Then I need a passport photo for it so I'm driven back to my hotel, which is again just around the corner, and when I return he's already had it typed up – not at his office, as there's clearly no such thing as a typewriter, let alone a computer and printer, in the Kisangani press office. So my photo is attached, and fortunately I've brought along a second photo because it turns out they need two.
Now a price has to be negotiated and although US$100 is mentioned and US$500 was floated at the police station yesterday, it's suggested that US$50 should be the price. I protest that not only is that incredibly expensive it's also what I'd heard a photo permit should cost for the whole country, not just one town.
‘So what do you want to pay?' seems to be the reply.
‘How about US$20,' I suggest.
After which the permit is taken around to the adjacent photocopy office and copied for the press office chef, and Ms Aganano drives me back to her office, stopping at a streetside photocopy booth to have it photocopied again for her own file and, back at the office, finally hands the original over to me and I'm on my way. With just one more stop at the same photocopy booth to get three more copies, just in case. The whole process has taken less than two hours.
The previous evening in the Les Chalets bar I'd also acquired a lawyer, an avocat. My lawyer had insisted he would have come straight round to the police station and sorted it out, as a favour for a visiting tourist, if only we'd met earlier. He gives me his mobile number in case I have another run-in with the police. During the photo permit negotiations I'd suggested that perhaps I should get Patrick, my avocat, to come round and help?
‘Oh, it's not that important,' is the reply, although perhaps that does speed things up.
Once my photo permit is in my pocket nobody ever hints at complaining about my camera again, although I do continue to use it as unobtrusively as possible. I'd also asked if taking photos with a phone was okay: ‘Phones are fine, it's only cameras', was the reply.
My next stop was the market to investigate – and photograph – that tasty bushmeat snack: monkey. The impact on the ecosystem from the Congo's devastating civil war is a horror story. Joe talks of seeing motorcycles passing by with dozens of smoked monkeys on board. The really serious bushmeat problem is not local and village consumption, it's the hunters who take them en masse and ship them to Kinshasa. He contrasts Congo to Costa Rica, ‘In a day's walk you can see four or five different types of monkeys in Costa Rica, here they know about humans and get as far away as they can.'
I think about the merry troupe of Capuchin monkeys I encountered trying to break in to the restaurant at the place I stayed in Costa Rica a couple of years ago. As Joe suggested, the smoked monkey section in the market is a depressing sight.
The waterfalls, just a stone's throw upriver from Kisangani, mark the start of almost two thousand kilometres of navigable river down to the capital Kinshasa, from where it's a nonstop tumble of rapids and falls for the final 250 kilometres down to the Atlantic. It was the trip upriver from Kinshasa (Leopoldville in the Belgian era) which inspired Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Through the years of violent turmoil, transport on the river ground to a halt, a major problem for Kisangani where the only alternative route was either by air or on roads close to impassable even at the best of times. Now the big barges were plying regularly up and down the river and there was no shortage of Primus beer in the town's bars. I wandered down to the docks to ask about the trip. ‘Le descente c'est deux semaine', a trucker tells me about the downriver trip. Upriver takes a month, but you should allow for five or six weeks, he continued.
I wasn't planning on taking the river back to Kinshasa. A couple of days later I took another Hewa Bora flight further east to Goma, in the troubled Kivu provinces along the border with Rwanda. Later I'd leave Congo by simply walking across the border into Rwanda, but first I'd sample the two attractions that account for almost all the tiny number of tourists who visit the country each year – the magnificent gorillas of the Virunga National Park and the stunning, lava-spewing Nyiragongo Volcano.
MY TROUBLED COUNTRIES itinerary included five other destinations, most of them now ticked off the list: Colombia, a country torn apart by its position as supplier for the world's insatiable demand for cocaine; Nauru, which went with amazing speed from rich to bankrupt and became an Australian prison camp; Pakistan, with an arm-long list of problems and a worrying arsenal of nuclear weapons to underline its nerve-wracking importance; Papua New Guinea, on Australia's doorstep, with immense natural riches and often teetering uncomfortably close to failed state status; and Zimbabwe, which one ruthless ruler has converted from breadbasket to basket case.
I'd cruised through my troubled list with nonchalant ease, but exactly a week after I left the Congo, the ex-Lufthansa Hewa Bora Boeing 727 I'd flown from Kinshasa to Kisangani and then on to Goma made its final flight. It ploughed into the jungle just short of the Kisangani runway, killing most of the passengers and crew in what would be the worst air disaster anywhere in the world in 2011.