I finally got to writing my Memoirs. In the process, I remembered my many cultural shocks. If you traveled the world over as I did, you may recognize some of your own experiences.
THE “WEST” AND “SORT OF WEST”
- USA: Americans think only they are sane. The rest of the world thinks Americans are insane and they are sane. And everything in America looks and tastes the same, and their girls are xenophobic.
- Russia: Taking a bath is against the rules unless you do it in vodka.
- Holland: Bikers don’t look right or left and run you over, yelling YOU are stupid. Plus ample dog poop and the only place where I got robbed three times over the years by the same people. Guess once: Starts with an “M”, Holland’s most popular ethnic Moroccan invaders.
- Belgium: Toilet paper cut from old newspapers and no sinks to wash your hands. Language either Flemish or Walloon, either way unintelligible. Breakfast: French fries, mussels, and beer (or “rouge”, red wine). Lots of smokers.
- France: Toilets with black holes, no seats, and pissed-over footsteps and no sinks to wash your hands. Plus subway stink is the world’s worst. And heaps of dog and pigeon poop. Food is way too expensive and waiters are rude. And French love is a myth. Americans in Paris made that up because they don’t know what love is either, only in the movies. But I made some very good friends and had lovely moments.
- Spain: Males can’t leave a girl alone. Females are locked up 24/7. And I can’t sing serenades in Spanish.
- Portugal: As many windmills as in Holland. They look spooky. Don Quixote traveled from Spain to Portugal to fight them.
- Italy: Males can’t leave a girl alone. And females eat too much pasta. And there’s too much pigeon poop, too.
- Germany: One menu only: bier, wurst, und sauerkraut. And too much hoompa hoompa.
- England: no menu at all, only rain, and after joining the EU they still drive on the wrong side of the road. Maybe that will change after Brexit.
- Ireland: All Irish have gone to New York to join the Democratic Party. Only Poles and Romanian pickpockets are left.
- Scotland: Rain, cold weather, smoking chimneys, and nobody speaks English.
- Switzerland: Swiss-French unintelligible; Swiss-German unintelligible, Swiss Italian, well, who knows; I don’t speak Italian. Traffic priority signs for frogs, cows, and turtles. The Swiss put holes in their cheese to attract American off-shore money. Raclette sits in your stomach for two weeks and causes terrible farts that kill your co-worker in seconds.
- Rwanda: Twice destroyed in thirty years with old colonial help.
- Burundi: Twice destroyed in twenty years with old colonial help.
- Central African Republic: snakes in and/or under your bed, wasps in your toilet, and pygmies running between your legs.
- Cameroon: The food looks great but you can’t eat it.
- Congo-Kinshasa: Everybody cheats.
- Congo-Brazaville: Nobody cheats. It’s forbidden by law.
- South Africa: Go visit a shopping mall to get shot at and run for your life.
- Tanzania: Dar es Salaam has too many SUVs and nobody knows how they were paid for.
- Kenya: Wildlife is for tourists and the airport road is to kill the tourists.
- Ethiopia: The table cloth is edible but you wouldn’t think that when you go to bed.
- Mali: That’s where Timbuktu is and when I got there I finally understood why everybody says it’s nowhere.
- Guinea: Why for heaven’s sake did the colonialists put that country on the map?
- Ivory Coast: Must be called Côte d’Ivoire to show it was once French and that’s why it is what it is.
- Ghana: The only place in Africa on the West Coast that seemed to work because it had a direct KLM flight from Amsterdam.
- Nigeria: The one place in Africa that should work but doesn’t. Night flight out to safety.
- Bangladesh: Delicacy: cockroached curry. Eating with your fingers; spit reservoirs in every corner of every corridor; toilets are bastions of urine, providing the main perfume in office buildings; and beware of the Dhaka “run” if you want to survive.
- India: more of the same, but a little bit more sophisticated and the best food in the world. And heavenly Kashmir should be declared neutral territory for everyone to enjoy, not just Islamists, not just Hindus, not just Pakistanis. Just let it be.
- Malaysia: A mushroom garden with millions of multicolored edible mushrooms and a McDonald’s in Kuala Lumpur. What a place to live.
- Singapore: The country that everyone wants to ape but only Singaporeans know how to run.
- Taiwan: The only place where China is not China but everyone speaks Chinese and a tree you can slide through to become rich if you don’t fear getting stuck in the middle for the rest of your life.
- Philippines: Manila TV is like American TV – just as awful. In the countryside you find its beauty, but you may get struck by a typhoon.
- Indonesia and Bali: Djakarta is like Lagos, but outside the city, Java is a jewel. And on Bali, they serve the best suckling pig on earth. Go visit Bali’s interior to see the real Indonesia and its terraced rice fields. Heaven on earth. But the hotel bills are hellish.
- Hong Kong: British geniality mixed with Chinese Confucianism. Foremost a good cuisine, especially on the street, but everyone wondered how long the good life of one country two systems would last when the Brits handed it over to Communist China. The day of reckoning has come.
- China: More bikers than in Holland, and I never had real Chinese food before, not even in Amsterdam or NY China Town.
- Macao: Beware! Bought my wife a sapphire ring that turned out a piece of colored glass.
- Japan: Plastic food in the window is for show and not for eating. You must bow when meeting people in the elevator. And even a GPS can’t find where you’re going.
- Hawaii: advertised as little Asia but no, it’s pure America.
- Saudi-Arabia: The place where beautiful women are kept in hiding and your head gets cut off if you dare looking at them when they come strolling out after 11 p.m., or for saying something about their beauty.
- Lebanon: A Falafel tastes as good as a bomb.
- Jordan: An oasis in the desert and the only place in the Middle-East where I could ride a horse, have dinner in the open with a lovely woman, and feel at home, and where I might have stayed if she had said “yes.”
- Guyana: Loud. Loud dogs, loud crickets, loud vehicles, loud music, loud people but great curry and the best rum in the world. Drives on the wrong side of the road because the British stole Guyana from the Dutch in the 100-year European wars. Beautiful and savvy women, always showing a pleasant smile; and everything stays the same.
- Surinam: Neighbor of Guyana and awfully isolated but Surinamers don’t mind. People speak fluent Dutch (the only country outside Holland and Flemish Belgium that does) as Surinam was a Dutch colony until 1975. My greatest shock was that while speaking Dutch they are not Dutch at all, and their beautiful women bite.
- Curacao: The place to live but too expensive to retire.
- Bonaire: For scuba divers and iguana lovers only.
- Jamaica: The place where I spent my Millennial and tore both of my shoulder tendons when climbing back into my capsized sailing boat, leaving me burdened with lifelong Jamaicanitis.
“Out of Africa” 2. Burundi.
Like Rwanda, Burundi is a small but heavy populated country inhabited by two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. In Rwanda, the Hutu majority killed off the ruling Tutsi minority in 1962 and governed the country until 1994. In 1972, the minority Tutsi regime in Burundi was challenged by a Hutu rebellion, which also had genocidal proportions, but the regime held power, although it was disrupted by several coups afterward. When I joined the World Bank in 1972, I was tasked to develop the Bank’s non-existing lending program in both countries and we had succeeded relatively well when I changed jobs in 1979. In 1994, the tribal conflicts resumed in Rwanda when Tutsi refugees from Uganda took power again after a horrific genocide in which up to a million people lost their lives. It started when the Rwandese president’s plane in which also traveled the Burundi President was shot down while landing at Kigali airport. Everything we had achieved was destroyed in Rwanda’s civil war. In Burundi, it was not much better. Rwanda stabilized in 2003, but Burundi remained plagued by repeated rebellions. Most horrific was the rebel’s and the Burundi army’s use of children between the ages of 10-16 in direct combat. The UN and the African Union had to intervene. Working on most of Africa was tough.
This picture shows me with the driver of the Peugeot 404 at the border post between Rwanda and Burundi in 1975. My Director, whom I accompanied on this trip took the picture.
The old colonial Paguidas Hotel where I stayed. Greek-owned. A Greek restaurant next to the hotel served fatty Greek dishes and meager chicken without meat. At night, ‘single male guests’ were surprised by knocking on their door, hearing a soft female voice saying, “c’est moi.” I suspected they were led to our rooms by the receptionist, who probably got a cut if the ladies found a willing customer. Complaining did not help: hungry families needed to eat and jobs were scarce. Later, they built a modern Meridien Hotel across. But the ‘nightly custom’ of whispers and knocks remained.
First visit of a World Bank Vice President (leaning over on the picture) to Burundi, which I had arranged to ‘put Burundi on the map.’ It succeeded: he approved proceeding with the proposed strategy and project operations. I am the one with the camera hanging from my arm. We were wearing sweaters as the temperature in Burundi (800 meters above sea-level) can be pretty cool. The picture was taken by someone who did not have color film in his camera. We were watching a spectacular drum and dance group performance Burundi was famous for.
I caught one of these fabulous dancers up in the air. Despite all fighting, tribal hatred and misery, the Burundi people showed a remarkable resilience.
Lake Tanganyika near Bujumbura town. Fishermen, mostly Hutus or Twa, a pygmy minority tribe, gathering on shore near their boats to fish sardines, which they dry onshore and sell at the market. A protein-rich fish Barundi people enjoy. At night they use torches to attract the fish which offers a fascinating view of dancing lights seen from the top of the hills on the outskirts of Bujumbura town. Read about it in ‘The Tutsi Queen’ https://amzn.to/2Ny1Ll6. On Kindle, only 99cts.
Lake Tanganyika by day. Across is the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kivu area, from which Hutu rebels invaded Burundi to unseat the Tutsi regime. The lake is inhabited by hippos and crocodiles. Expats used it for sailing. An expat club was located at the lake, not far from Bujumbura airport. Once, a lady swimmer was attacked by a hippo in the water near the club, where people often took a swim. She lost half her bottom but survived. Coming back at night in my (borrowed!) car from the airport, where I had said farewell to a friend, I almost ran into a hippo crossing the small road. A weird sight seeing such a huge animal emerging from the grass on the right and slouching to the other side. Remarkably, it did not seem bothered by my headlights and just strolled on and disappeared. Had I run into the huge colossus, it would have been certain death.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
I don’t know if some still remember Emperor Bokassa. He possessed three Boeings 707 while the country was dead poor. McNamara, then President of the World Bank, reportedly told him he was mismanaging his country but only achieved that Bokassa got rid of one Boeing. I set foot in this place in 1987, under a new regime but still ruled like a dictatorship. I managed to put a transport sector reform project together of $140 million in which many donors participated. The World Bank agreed to do so despite a major disagreement with the French Government that had committed to financing an earth road right through the Central African rainforest, the so-called ‘4th parallel road’. Construction eventually failed because unrest broke out and the Government toppled, once more. Our ‘TSP’ took off but implementation also suffered from government failure. Some pictures follow below.
The path of the 4th parallel road straight into the jungle. Pygmees and wildlife galore, including bush elephants. I found it an environmental disaster but the French Government – the former colonial power – won.
Supervising the 4th parallel road construction. The French engineer behind me found this job the dream of his life: constructing a road through a completely fresh terrain and on top of that a jungle. In the background a bulldozer hard at work, destroying beautiful tropical trees. But the precious wood got sold pretty good.
Trying to swing with the lianas of a tropical tree like Tarzan.
A waterfall near the forest.
Crossing the Oubangi River separating the Central African Republic from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A favored escape route for bandits and overthrown rulers.
Next time: Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon.
HIT MAN KILLS HIS PREY
After landing, Patrick left the engines running. “I’ll pick you up by nine tomorrow morning,” he said. “If you aren’t here I assume you won’t come. The driver knows how to contact me, just in case. Be careful.”
Yves and Pierre unloaded their bags and walked to the SUV while Patrick taxied away, paused for a moment, then took off.
The driver took their bags, but Yves held on to his rifle case.
They reached the camp by nightfall, driving partially over dirt roads and through savanna grass. The driver also did not stay and said he would pick them up between seven and eight the next morning when they were expected to return from their expedition.
Pierre led Yves to the captain. All his twenty rangers roaming around in the base were fully armed uniformed soldiers. At 2.30 in the morning they would move through the bush to the rebel camp in Soudan, where Mombé had been spotted, and attack at the slightest emergence of daylight. The border between the Central African Republic and Soudan was invisible in this area. Only the road to Khartoum had small customs offices. First, Yves would focus on Mombé, kill him, and then the rangers would take care of his men. They’d confiscate whatever catches of ivory they could find, and pile it up for transport to their main base. Yves asked Pierre how the rangers would find their way in the dark. To his utter surprise they all had night goggles.
“The rangers battling the poachers are an elite group,” is all that Pierre said. Yves found this peculiar, but dropped further questions. It was to his advantage that the rangers were combat ready, whatever the motive.
The captain took Yves to a small tent where he spent a few uncomfortable hours. Insects bit his neck and cheeks and he kept slapping himself. About two thirty, Pierre entered and told him the captain was assembling his men.
“One question,” Yves said. “Why hire me for this job and not a sniper from the French army base in Bangui? They must know these rangers, perhaps even train them.”
“The Government doesn’t like the French,” Pierre said. “Come, we must go.”
Yves didn’t like the way Pierre brushed off his question, but at this point it didn’t make a difference.
They waded through high grass in pairs. Rangers up front used their machetes to cut away a path, but did so as silently as possible. After an hour walk, they stopped. The stench of rotting flesh filled the air. One ranger flashed his torch on the ground and they saw the speared carcass of an elephant, tusks removed. The elephant’s head was riddled with bullets.
Yves felt disgusted. His crime syndicate dismembered dead rivals, but elephants? All of a sudden he felt good about killing Mombé.
Moving the team forward some 50 yards in fresher air, the captain halted and sent out two scouts to check out Mombé’s camp and recommend a suitable shooting spot for Yves.
After half an hour they came back and talked in an indistinguishable language to the captain. Pierre and Yves joined him. The scouts had identified Mombé’s camp but there were guards. A large tree stood at the edge from where Yves could aim, but an SUV was parked underneath watched by a guard.
The captain selected two of his men to accompany Yves to eliminate the guard. One of the two scouts would lead the way. The captain handed Yves his flare gun to warn them if he got in trouble or when he had eliminated Mombé, which would be the signal to attack the camp. He ordered Pierre to stay behind as he wanted to limit as much as possible the chances of the advance team being detected.
Yves left with the three men in the dark and struggled for some fifteen minutes through high savanna grass and bush, until the scout raised his hand. Yves could see the curves of some tents and the shape of the roof of an SUV underneath an acacia tree. A guard stood leaning against the vehicle, his AK-47 resting beside him on the ground. The only way for Yves to climb that tree would be to kill the guard without a sound. He designated one of the rangers with a signal of slicing his neck. The ranger understood and left. A few minutes later he heard a soft gurgle, then silence. They kept huddling down in the grass, waiting for the ranger to return, hoping the gurgle had not alarmed anyone in the camp. Yves looked at his watch. Four thirty. Soon, dawn would break.
The ranger came back with a mean grin on his face, carrying the AK-47 as a trophy. Yves assembled his rifle from its case, slid the magazine in place and left, leaving the case with the scout. Ducking to stay covered, he arrived at the acacia tree and climbed up as high as he could. He counted several small tents. Mombé should hopefully be holed up in one of them. Two guards stood outside one, probably his. He adjusted his telescope and waited.
After five minutes which seemed hours, he heard mumbling and saw movements in one tent. Yves held his Remington ready. Two shirtless men came out of a tent and went to relieve themselves. Others followed. When would they discover that one of the guards had disappeared? There was no time left. First thing they would do was look at the SUV and then spot him right above and he would be toast. Where was Mombé? Was he or was he not in the camp?
Pearls of sweat formed on his forehead. The horizon was lightening up making him visible and when it would get brighter the poachers would shoot him out of the tree like a monkey. And if he didn’t shoot his flare gun, the rangers would attack the camp as soon as daylight broke, whether he’d shot Mombé or not, thinking he’d been caught or was dead.
A half-naked man came out of the tent where the two guards were keeping watch and went to the same place to relieve himself. It was Mombé. Yves aimed and shot him twice in the head. For a moment Mombé kept standing, then doubled over and fell forward. His guards, who’d given him his privacy, didn’t notice. Yves shot the flare gun twice and let himself almost fall from the tree, keeping his Remington in one hand but dropping the flare gun.
Immediate confusion reigned in the camp. Poachers frantically went for their rifles and looked around to shoot, but by then Yves had fled. Next, the rangers attacked and Yves heard loud shooting from all sides. Hiding in the high grass, he couldn’t see anything, but the fight lasted at least fifteen minutes. Then it became awfully quiet. Slowly, Yves moved up just enough to see what had happened. He came out of his hiding and walked into the camp. The rangers were walking amidst at least a dozen dead bodies.The surprise attack had been fully successful but the captain had lost two of his own. Yves shook his hand. “Bien fait,” he said. “It worked.” Pierre came along and shook his hand, too. One of the rangers photographed Mombé’s body.
Together with the captain, Yves and Pierre inspected the remainder of the camp. The captain pointed him to a heap of tusks stored for transport.
PHOTO TONY KARUMBA, AFP
“The booty,” he grumbled, shaking his head.
TO BE CONTINUED
Ever been in a jungle, a real rainforest in Central Africa? I was and nearly stayed in it forever.
This is the story of the Fourth Parallel Road. A monster of an environmentally wrong decision by France to build a broad earth road from nowhere to nowhere in the middle of pristine jungle in the Central African Republic. It happened in the late eighties-early nineties and I had to inspect it in the context of a multi-donor transport project that I led for the World Bank. The habitat of pygmies was exposed to modern age, game put in danger of extinction, mighty tropical trees fell, and the ecosystem got disrupted by bulldozers, scrapers and crude humans. A French engineer said, “This is the most beautiful project in my life, building a road from fresh straight through a jungle.”
The road went from close to the Cameroonian border to mid-point in the Central African Republic (CAR), an area closed to the modern world, inhabited by zillions of the most beautiful butterflies I have ever seen. It was supposed to be connected to Bangui, the capital of CAR, on the one end and the Atlantic coast of Cameroon on the other, an old colonial dream that originally aimed at building a railway. The futuristic dream featured prominently on a 5000 franc note, with the train crossing over a bridge to be built over the river the “Bangui” or, further down, the Congo River. Thank God, this never materialized. Railways in Africa proved an unmitigated disaster.
The one side of the Note with the beautiful lady is the more realistic picture.
I stood in the center of a world where few people had set foot, looking in horror at huge tropical trees falling to make room for “the road” in the name of economic development. I’m sure that today such a project would never be approved. The World Bank battled it, but in the end France went ahead, tossing our objections aside.
To make a final pitch to stop the project, we took a small airplane to fly over the jungle and get a better view of how the road would affect the environment. Leaving from a small strip close to the Cameroon border, the pilot skimmed through low-lying clouds of fog to show the panoply of tropical trees in varying colors of green. It’s an immensely thick area of trees, looking like dense fields of green cauliflower from the air, and admittedly, the road would only affect a limited portion. But once you cut in, damage grows because its facilitates people moving in, cutting wood and hunting wild animals. and the damage grows like a cancer.
While we were flying, the pilot lost his way, as his plane was not equipped with a GPS. Besides, it appeared he had not prepared a flight plan. And this over an area larger than Texas. Below us, nothing but trees. One by one the fuel tanks ticked empty and the last one got dangerously low. My 4 or so Central African collaborators got scared and just went to “sleep” in their seats, having given up on life, waiting for the crash to happen. Once we would be down, the trees would fold over the plane and nobody would ever find us in this extensive jungle. I said a few prayers, looking at the maps with the pilot. Then I spotted a small strip: the beginning of the Fourth Parallel Road we had visited the day before. God had saved us, so had the road. The pilot could re-coordinate and with the last fuel tank down to less than a quarter full we landed at Bangui airport. As a result, we had little objection left to let the road construction continue. Life is precious.
Next time some stories about Cameroon, Lebanon and Jordan.