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Jenna Black

Jenna's Zaire Adventure

You may have a hard time believing it, but the following story is really true. Yes, I make things up on a daily basis. But even I wouldn't put my characters through this kind of mess, especially not at age 16.

Going Solo

Looking back, I can say with confidence that I was in over my head from the very beginning. I was 16 years old. I had never traveled on my own before, and here I was on an anthropological dig--in Zaire.

I had volunteered to join this expedition because I was fascinated by human evolution. I’d devoured Lucy, and had dreamed of one day becoming a renowned paleoanthropologist, so when I sent away for the Earthwatch brochure and saw this trip, I knew it was the one for me.

I’m sure some more mature part of my mind understood that the excitement and intellectual stimulation that came with startling discoveries like Lucy were bought at the expense of countless hours of digging and searching, and that even putting in those countless hours did not guarantee success. Even so, I found myself ill-prepared for the reality of the gruntwork of research.

Each morning, we would trudge down a narrow path through the brush until we reached the day’s dig site. With nothing but a flimsy piece of foam to cushion us, we would each claim a single 1M x 1M square. Then, throughout the long day, as the temperature rose, we would sit within the confines of that square, scratching away at the dry, crusty earth with dental picks and delicate brushes, looking for even the tiniest fragment of fossil.

Our camp consisted of a cluster of tents between the ruins of an old Belgian resort and the edge of a deep river gorge. Nights in our tents were terrifying. The path we followed down to the river each evening to bathe was used by hippos, who climbed it to reach the prime grazing area on which we had pitched our tents. All through the night, we would hear their clumsy footsteps, hear the low, deep grunts that sounded like demonic conversation.

You might think that just being on the dig was an adventure, and you would be right. But a far more terrifying adventure awaited me when the dig was over.

We were due to leave the bush on a DC-3 operated by Aire Zaire, known to the locals as “Aire Peut-Etre,” or “Air Perhaps.” Toward the end of our two-week dig, we received word that our flight would be delayed--by 24 hours! My ambitious itinerary involved meeting a driver in Goma, Zaire, crossing the border to Gisenyi, Rwanda, catching a flight to the capital, Kigali, and meeting my mother at the airport there, where we would head off for a vacation in Kenya. I could not afford a 24-hour delay.

Throughout that long day, each time a plane passed overhead, Dr. Boaz, the expedition leader, radioed to ask if it could take a single passenger to Goma. Time and again, he was refused. And then, the most frightening miracle occurred: a plane passed overhead, piloted by a man named Batundi. Throughout our two weeks at the dig, we’d heard his name mentioned as the most notorious smuggler in the region.

A 16-year-old American girl, traveling alone with limited funds, forced to take a tiny plane piloted by a notorious African smuggler. Even now, more than 20 years later, it sounds incredible and terrifying.

The plane ride turned out to be uneventful, thankfully, although I was now arriving in Goma 24 hours early. Once we were safely on the ground, Batundi took me to the office of the plane’s owners. Much to my surprise, they turned out to be a pair of American missionaries. When I told them my plight, they put me up in their own home for the night. I was incredibly grateful, for the only hotel in town did not take credit cards and would have used up the last of my cash.

The next day, the missionaries took me back to the airport where I was to meet my driver. There was no sign of him. When we were certain the search was futile, the missionaries came to my aid once again and arranged for another driver to take me across the border.

With profuse thanks for all their help, I got into the car. I’d lost a lot of time trying to find the original driver, and I was in serious danger of missing my plane to Kigali. I had another nerve-wracking moment when we actually made the border crossing, for the process was maddeningly slow, and I was ever more aware of the minutes ticking by. Finally, we got through, and I reached the airport. Most of my remaining cash went to the driver.

I call the place an “airport,” but that is a generous term. There was only one runway, and it was a well-manicured lawn. I presented my ticket to the man in charge, and he said something to me that I couldn’t understand. I asked him to repeat, but although he was speaking French, with which I was mildly proficient, I found his accent impenetrable and with increasing anxiety I signaled my lack of comprehension. To my rescue came a pair of Parisian nuns, who were also waiting for a plane. The airport manager spoke to them in his peculiar, Rwandan version of French; then, they repeated to me what he’d said, in a Parisian French I could understand.

Unfortunately, understanding the words was not at all comforting. The man was telling me that the plane was overbooked and already full. He chided me for not reconfirming my reservation. I explained that I’d just spent the last two weeks in the bush, with no access to a telephone, but he remained adamant that I should have reconfirmed.

More worldly-wise now, I can look back and see that of course it was not necessary to reconfirm a reservation on a tiny plane that took off from a lawn! The manager was looking for baksheesh, which was so commonplace in the area that it was taken for granted. I was too young and too naive to understand that.

Faced with the prospect of being stranded in Rwanda, alone and with no money, I did what any sensible 16-year-old girl would do: I started to cry. My tears worked as well as the bribe would have, and the manager’s heart softened. He promised he would try to get me on the plane, and--wouldn’t you know it?--he found an opening.

By the time I was seated on the plane, the days of stress and anxiety were beginning to tell on me. I was weak and shaky, my stomach lurching and churning in the most unsettling manner. I was exhausted from having hardly slept the night before, but unable to sleep on the plane because of my upset stomach. To pass the time, and to distract myself from my discomfort, I struck up a conversation with some fellow passengers, a group of three or four Belgians traveling together.

At last, the flight arrived in Kigali. It was now late at night, and I was overwhelmed with relief, anxious to see my mother, and looking forward to collapsing into bed. But, as I descended the steps onto the tarmac, seeking my mother’s face, I saw no one. I followed my fellow passengers into the terminal, and still I searched in vain for a familiar face.

Where was she? My new friends from the plane waited for me as I searched the small airport, but I soon had to admit to myself that she was not there.

I couldn’t imagine where she could be, how she could possibly fail to meet my plane, but the only course of action I could think of was to go to the hotel where we were supposed to stay and see if she was there.

Once again, I found myself beholden to strangers, for the Belgians were staying at the same hotel and offered to let me ride in their cab. We arrived at the hotel shortly afterward, and I was sure that I would be reunited with my mother. I stepped up to the reception desk and asked the clerk to call my mother’s room. Then, I received the most devastating blow of the entire ordeal: my mother had checked out of the hotel that morning!

This was by far the low point of my journey. My Belgian friends deserted me. The desk clerk could offer no advice or solace. I had no money. I was alone in a foreign country. I had no idea where my mother was. I was suffering from increasingly serious sleep-deprivation. And I couldn’t even begin to imagine what to do next.

By this time, I was in what I can only call an altered state, hardly aware of my surroundings or of the passing time. I have no idea how long I sat in that lobby in a semi-trance. But I vividly recall coming out of it when the most welcome sight I’d ever seen met my eyes: my mother walking in through the front doors.

I was instantly on my feet, and I flung myself desperately into her comforting arms, sobbing. I demanded to know why the clerk had told me she’d checked out; she told me she’d arranged for us to spend the night and the next day at a wonderful resort in the Rwandan countryside. She’d checked out of the hotel this morning, hiring a driver to take us directly from the airport to the resort, a three-hour drive from Kigali.

Numbly, I allowed myself to be packed into a Jeep. During that bumpy three-hour ride over narrow dirt roads, my mother told me her own harrowing story.

Apparently, the flight I’d been put on from Gisenyi was not the flight I was scheduled to take. My poor mother met my plane at the airport, and I was not on it! In a panic of her own, she’d gone to the travel agent who had worked with her to find the resort. Our emergency plan had been that if something went wrong, I would plant myself in Gisenyi, and my mother would come find me. When I didn’t get off the plane, she immediately implemented that contingency. The travel agent found a driver for her, but strongly recommended against making the drive at night. Rwanda is almost entirely mountains, the roads unpaved and treacherous even in the daylight. Reluctantly, my mother agreed to wait for morning.

The travel agent then offered to let my mother spend the night at her house, for comfort and company. Thank God my mother declined, for instead she returned to the hotel, and we were gleefully reunited.

It seems incredible that I went through all this at the age of 16--and that my love of travel and adventure has since continued undaunted. It also seems incredible that so many things could have gone wrong in such a short time. But then, it could have been a lot worse. What if I hadn’t met the American missionaries? What if I hadn’t met the French nuns? Or the Belgian travelers?

Raised in the sometimes frightening city of Philadelphia, where all strangers are suspect and potentially dangerous, I feel this adventure helped me gain a more balanced view of people as a whole, for it showed me that there are more good Samaritans in the world than there are villains. It also showed me that I was stronger and more resourceful than I ever gave myself credit for. I would never want to live through such an experience again, but I am thankful for the glimpses into human nature, and into my own psyche, that I gained.

And, oh yes, the next year, I traveled by myself again--to Nepal! But that’s another story.