I’ve had quite a few visiting colleagues lately and it has been a blessing. I enjoy sharing hospitality and while it’s not as easy to provide everything I’d like to for visitors, I like to try my best. Thursday the last visitors went home to Kinshasa. I’m fighting round two of a cold, so I planned to stay in and rest today. It’s Saturday after all.
This morning I did just that. I read the news and some history of my home town online. I had rice with milk, sugar and cinnamon for breakfast. A friend passed by for a visit and we talked about the explosive gasses in the depths of Lake Kivu to the east. A couple of other friends called up to say hello. Then I got beeped by Jean, the head guard at the office. (Since all cell phones are prepaid here, people will often call and hang up in an effort to encourage you to call them back and therefore pay for the call.) I figured that it was either some sort of problem at the office or he was calling to tell me that the cat was hungry. For potential of the former I called back immediately to find out that it was the latter.
Since I have never seen pet food of any kind for sale in Kisangani the quick and easy solution is canned corned beef hash. The stuff is everywhere and it’s a little expensive but it does the trick. Today I went to a wholesale shop and found it by the case for about half of what I have been paying. This is a good development. Even better, I found a source for cases of canned peas. Most all vegetables are hard to find here because it never gets cold enough for them to grow and all trade from the east, where they grow very well, is by dilapidated aircraft stocked with more precious cargo (diamonds and cheese and non-perishables). What’s more, I have a particular fondness for canned peas. I know they are disgusting (and I like fresh ones better). But when I was a young child canned vegetables were most all the vegetables that I knew. My mother doesn’t eat most vegetables and I never had the diligence to water the garden consistently in those days. I thought all peas were gray-green and soft on the tongue. Later in life I have of course experienced the goodness of frozen and fresh veggies. Yet since my freshman year of college canned peas have been a special nostalgic food for me. Here they can cost an astounding $5 a can! But today I bought them by the case for fifty cents! They might be pretty horrible, but that only adds to the nostalgic charm.
It’s fun going to these sorts of wholesale depots. Each one has a very complete and secure system. When you walk in the door all of the products and most of the staff are behind fencing of some sort. There may be sacks of flour and other commodities piled around the floor of the public space. It’s usually crowded, dimly lit, and the air is warm and stale. Random products lurk in the distant shadows. Sometimes it pays to ask what something is. I got a jar of beets this way a few weeks ago (I love beets). You go to one window to place your order and another window to pay for it and then a man brings your items out and sets them on the floor. Finally another man by the door yells your name and you present yourself to get your receipt, scoop your goods up off the floor, and out the door into the gleaming sunshine you go.
Of course buying things by the case means carrying them by the case up the 127 stairs into my apartment. Still, for the savings and the sweet nostalgia of canned sweet peas… it’s well worth it.
The weather is almost perfect today. It’s hot but it’s not too humid and there’s a slight breeze that made sitting in the shade on the office porch and talking with Jean a real delight. I saw several people that I know and several others saw me and called my name out. This city of a million is starting to feel like a small town. I smiled at quite a few people and collected some toothy grins in return. There are a lot of problems in the Congo but the smile factor is one thing the place has going for it. If I smiled at random strangers in California I suspect a few would smile back and the vast majority would give me a dirty look. Here it’s the inverse. Relationships with people here are as complicated as anywhere, (neither poverty nor wealth seem to breed unity,) but the simple smile exchange is still pure and mutually beneficial.
Finally, for the first time in a long time I was out on a Saturday and did not once get pulled over by the traffic cops for even a few minutes of comic extortion. I’m not sure I am worthy of this measure of blessing! (Maybe those guys were just paid at the end of the month.)