On Friday morning Ange taught me how to drive the motorcycle. Ange is almost a Pere, which means he has been studying and training for the priesthood for about seven years, and will soon take his final vows. He's like all of the men that I call boys here, a normal kid, his devotion to religion completely unapparent until standing before a meal or inside a house of God. The door to the chapel is like a somber waterfall and when they walk through they emerge on the other side soaked in sobriety. I learned quickly not to try smiling at people in the chapel.
Ange is one of the more brilliant lights around here, when not in the shadow of Christ. When he smiles or tells a story you could attach him to a cord and light the village for a week. He is tall and thin, but not clumsy or lanky. his body and his face are elegant in an almost effeminate way. When he laughs it feels like something is crackling through the air, separating the molecules and making room for even more. There's a happiness that clings to him and people seem to breathe easier when he's around.
In the mornings, he teaches the secondary school and I've started teaching an English class at the college. After class, he took me to a stretch of road that was somewhat flat and devoid of boulders bigger than a beagle. He drew the gears in the dirt and patiently showed me the necessary motions. He let me start the bike, then put it in gear, then move forward on it slowly. Then we flew down the road, with him sitting behind me shouting instructions and "exercises" into the wind.
Then he let me do it on my own. He told me to drive down the road and then come back, and told me not to tip over. I did tip over but I kept that bit to myself. It's quite freeing to streak across the land on a motorcycle. I finally understand why people put their lives on the line to ride a hunk of ego-booster. I wanted everyone in the villages to see me. I wanted them to see the mzungu doing something tangible and dangerous and difficult. I wanted the people to see that I wasn't a delicate skin that some reptile had shed and left to blow apart in the wind.
When I got off to turn the bike around I forgot that it wasn't just a bicycle and it fell over with me under it. I rolled a few turns down the hill before jumping up frantically, terrified someone had seen me and would shout, "aha! I knew you were a spoiled and weak little mzungu!" Thankfully, nobody saw me. Ange was ecstatic that I had returned in one piece.
Later that day Pere Jean-Marie, Pere Bob and Brother Ngazi and I traveled to Kiondo for the weekend. Kiondo is about 2 hours away on a road that creeps into the mountains through tiny villages the whole way. The road is so bad you have to drive under 20 mph and when we arrived in Kiondo I had pulled most muscles in my body including several in my forearms.
As we rattled through the villages Jean-Marie provided a running dialogue of which village belonged to which group of Christians. This one was Catholic and we could stop and say hello, the next one was a Protestant village and we drove 25 mph. We peaked at 30 once, when we drove through the Seventh Day Adventists, and I couldn't help feeling like I was driving through a game of Christian monopoly. In the middle of each village I imagined a towering medal playing piece. A silver Pope's hat here, a bronze number 7 over there.
As he continued his dialogue and his tone rose and fell in parallel with the group of the moment, I wondered why there were divisions at all within Christianity. Each village, whether presided over by Anglicans, Adventists or Catholics was simply a group of people trying to live a good life, raise a few happy children and keep an ounce of hope stored away for the next day. The details of how seemed quite irrelevant to me. But Jean -Marie and the other two were quite wrapped up in the details and spoke about it in rapid French most of the way.
When we arrived in Kiondo it was precisely dinnertime. Les Soeurs had prepared a meal of chicken, french-fries, potatoes, fufu, meat sauce and cabbage. Meals for me have become a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. The people here think that by not taking two heaping servings or sucking the brains through the eye sockets of the fish, I will shrivel up and die before my next meal. They insist I need lots of food so I can work hard during the day. It's difficult and embarrassing trying to explain that I don't actually do manual labor, ever. Manual labor here is akin to breathing. The heaping portions they consume are quickly distributed to muscles and efficiently siphoned off, while mine lounge around clinging fervently and quite happily to my spare tire.
In the morning the Fathers and I left for Ishangu at six. Ishangu is the place where the river, the lake and the equator collide. It is also the location of some of the oldest human fossils ever found. There is a line of current where the hippos congregate and you can see it stretching down the beach for miles. People call it the back of the dragon, and legend has it that our earliest ancestors followed it across the lake to Ishangu. The dragon's spine travels a straight line across the entire lake and points, like an arrow on a treasure map, directly to where the bones were found.
In order to get to the "center of the world," a look-out point where you can sit with a friend, a beer and several deadly wasps, watching the river and the lake wiggle their fingers, we had to cross the back of the dragon. We rode across in a large wooden canoe, with a man older than the dragon itself pushing us forward with a long pole. The hippos came up to yawn and wiggle their ears, but stayed a nice distance away and thankfully the crocodiles were nowhere to be seen.
We sat on the look-out point with the Conservationist, a thick-skinned man named Godfriede, talking about the equilibrium of man and nature and the constant torment of poachers. He spends his days attempting to educate the local villagers about the importance of conserving natural resources, including animals. But when hyenas tear through the season's crops Godfriede doesn't have much hope of inspiring mercy.
He looks physically pained when he talks about people cutting down his trees. Everything around us is like one of his children. I have to watch what I say so I don't demean any of his kids. He's so worried about this land being torn down, but everywhere you look there are green wooly trees or the purple hides of hippos. From our vantage point we even see a log-like crocodile floating nonchalantly by. I think of New York City and imagine him arriving at the land of opportunity and promptly keeling over dead at the feet of the Statue of Liberty.
On the way back I walk with Godfriede, asking him about where the Mai-Mai soldiers are and how the war has affected the land. He swiftly evades the subject, telling me that the war is nowhere near here and not to worry, I'm safe. Asking men about what's going on with the war always ends abruptly. They see a little girl with pig-tails and a high voice asking of there are monsters in the closet. Only when I speak to the women is there an understanding that I'm asking because I need to know; that I need to know everything. Godfriede has already put on the father cloak so I don't press him further. There are butterflies in hundreds of shades flitting around us; you can feel the fertility of the land rising off of it like heat, so I continue chatting with him about his various charges.
In the canoe on the way back a man with a rifle joins us as protection against crocodiles. The rifle looks like he found it in an old cracker-jack box and I have to prance around to keep it from pointing directly at my feet. He is helping the men lift the boat back into the water and seems to have completely forgotten the thing is swinging around at his side. When we get to the other side, I pull my bandana over my face to keep the swarm of insects from clambering into my eyes and throat. When we first arrived I wasn't prepared, and found out quickly that I am in fact claustrophobic when hundreds of tiny corpses are stuck to the insides of my nostrils. I had to concentrate diligently to avoid getting sick on the path as I snorted them down my throat and spit them out in order to breathe. Veil over my face I know Godfriede would have been happy to know I was saving his pig-head friends from their doom.
After spending several hours entertaining the flocks of children who surround me like wide skirt that never comes off, we headed home. In the car ride on the way back we were surprised by a quick thunderstorm after dark. The dirt road turned quickly into a slip-n-slide and the "escarpment" between us and the swift drop of the mountain didn't provide much consolation. Jean-Marie made continual jokes in an attempt to alleviate his own fear, and I kept my fingers on the door handle and rehearsed the steps I would take as the car slid sideways and over the cliff. Pull handle, push door, lean in opposite direction of car tilt with equal and increasing force, attempt to hold car down with weight, let go, allow to plummet.
I jumped out of a moving car once before, when I was about 12 years old and thinking about it made me feel more confident about my plan. My brother was about to hock a loogey on me so I stepped out of the car. Luckily, we were only going about ten miles per hour. I rolled a few times on the pavement, feeling like a spy in a movie, and walked away without a scrape. My father was livid, in a you could have died but you're alive and well and now I'm so terrified and overjoyed at the same time I'm not sure what to do with myself so I might just kill you anyway kind of way. If my brother's spit could spark the necessary panic to jump out of a moving car, surely tipping over the edge of a cliff would have a similar effect.
Despite the rain and the dark we got home safely. When we arrived I was happy to be back, surrounded once again by the soft feeling of the Crosiers. After dinner that night one of the brothers announced the news of the day. In the North Kivu province three people were killed by the Mai-Mai soldiers. One was a young girl. Before they killed her the soldiers cut off her lips and her ears. In retaliation the people in her village killed ten Mai-Mai family members.
The stories of our vacation fall to the floor and the world comes rushing back. I feel guilty for laughing with Godfriede and for feeling safe and content with the Sisters. I feel guilty for forgetting about the people who are swimming in horror all of the time. If you're lucky, you can get out of the water and breathe for a while, but then the world reminds you that it's 70% ocean, and most people can't even see the land.