We arrive at the guest house which is housing my two totes in Zongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mandaba brought them over the border yesterday so that we could place them in a truck bound to Gemena this morning, cutting down the number of things to do, as we want to get to Gemena before dark. We make it over the border as early as possible, after two hours of:

  • customs,
  • a made-up cost to allow Mandaba to return to his own country, delivered by an angry woman who, I swear, just needs a good hot breakfast and a cup of coffee,
  • covid test results minutely and VERY slowly read and emailed to some random person’s email address,
    yellow fever check,
  • police ridiculousness to check out bags,
  • a scam or two, one of them squelched by Mandaba before it gets very far,
  • a big miscommunication regarding my residency visa, and
  • a ride in a dugout canoe

The sun is getting high and it is so very, very humid that we are sweating profusely and it is only 9:30am. We arrive at the guest house and are casually told that the room where the totes are is locked. Mandaba asks that they find the key so we can get out of here, as we have a 6-hour drive ahead of us and it has already been one of “those” mornings when the best laid plans haven’t worked out.

The men running the guest house are super sweet and they run around trying to find the key, as the owner is not present, but it is quickly painfully obvious that have no clue where the key might be. One of them shows up holding two large cups, each full of random keys. I sit across the patch of dirt that centers the guest house, with rooms on either side of it, so the locked door is in full view. I watch in horror as they dump out all the keys out of one cup and start going through the keys, one by one. As one doesn’t fit, they chuck it into the same pile of keys, meaning that they have no idea which key didn’t work and they will likely be trying the same key over and over again. I start shaking with laughter, covering my mouth in an attempt of civility when Mandaba asks, “are you laughing”? and that does it. Laughter bursts out of me, as I am unable to hold it in. This is such a ridiculous moment and the morning has been less than stellar, so I might be looking for hilarity in the minutia. Whatever the reason, this is so funny to me and I can’t help it. I go over to where the men are now staring at some keys on the floor and ask I if I can take a photo. They glumly agree, saying that maybe a window will open, allowing them to crawl into the room. Mandaba yells across to them, suggesting they call the owner.

30 seconds after hanging up with the owner, one of the men runs jubilantly out of a storage room of sorts, holding the key high. Mandaba looks at me, shrugging his shoulders, shaking his head with a laugh.

With the totes in a truck and on their way to Gemena whenever they have enough passengers to make the drive cost effective, we tuck into a bag of warm grilled goat and onions, with a delightful red pepper dip served in a tiny paper package. With full bellies and our backpacks and carry-ons tied to the back of the motorcycle, we are ready to head out of town.

Two old men who’ve been watching the key fiasco and the packing of our items suddenly ask Mandaba who I am. He explains for the millionth time today who I am and what I am doing here. They look at me, aghast, wondering out loud how it is possible for me to ride on the bike all the way to Gemena. We assure them that I am and they get up and follow us as Mandaba pushes the bike to the road, where I will climb on. I ask what is happening as I see the men peeking at us from the guesthouse entry way. One of the men says, “We just want to see you get on the motorcycle!” With them watching on, I squeeze between Mandaba and our luggage, waving goodbye to all who have gathered to watch the spectacle of this white girl riding off to Gemena.

6 hours later, I enter my cottage to take a shower and look in the mirror. I look like a chimney sweep…red and black covering every inch of my face.