Some of the other ex-pats here have said they envy my freedom. They rarely have the opportunity to venture farther than the short distance between Couvent and the hospital. I get to walk to Kalibatete or be driven to Mungele every day.
I love the commute to Kalibatete. It's 15 minutes on foot and I say "Bonjour" at least 100 times each time I make the trip. At first, the Congolese staff were puzzled as to why I would want to walk. They see Lubutu every day and to them it's not interesting. I think it's full or new, fun things to discover.
On my way home tonight, I walked out the dirt lane connecting the Centre de Santé with the main road. There were two games taking place, one on either side of my path. To the right; kids were playing the Congolese version of kickball. On the left, smaller children chased a duckling, screaming as the animal stayed just out of reach.
As usual, the moment I appeared, everything stopped. Everyone stared, some kids smiled; and most of them waved. Smaller children sometimes scream "Mzungu" (literally "white skinned") while older kids love to say "Bonjour" and hear me repeat it back. As quickly as I had stopped all the fun; it restarted once I had passed.
I turned right on the main paved road and walked downhill towards the bridge, currently under construction. There's a few businesses on this side of town, but the main attraction are the mosque, a couple of churches, and the MSF clinic.
The best part of the walk is watching the people. The Congolese are well dressed and unfailingly polite. Women wear beautiful dresses made of yards of cotton printed fabric, all strikingly patterned. Men hold things in their hands, but women usually carry objects on their heads. No matter how many times I see it, I am amazed at their balance carrying heavy loads on uneven pathways. They glide rather than walk.
A new bridge is being built over the waterway that the roadway is crossing. Despite the physical presence of a backhoe, I think it's all being done by hand--digging, mixing cement, and the rest. There are always lots of men working no matter what time I walk past. Today I saw an ex-pat working with them. He was busy and didn't seem particularly interested in chatting, so I just kept going.
Walking uphill from the river, I got to the main commercial part of town. The stores here include lots of poorly-stocked pharmacies, shacks selling mobile phone credits, and a couple of stores to pick up the odd bar of abrasive, wildly colored soap. Finally I arrived at the main square of town. There is a pole in the center, with a faded and slightly tattered Congolese flag flying. Every day at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. the flag goes up or down. An official walks out to the pole, blows a whistle, and the world stops. Everyone on foot, people on bikes and motorcycles, and every single car (in the cities) — they all stop. On my way home today I hit it exactly right. I got to watch the man whistle, salute the flag, lower it, and whistle again. Only then could I continue.
After Main Square, I hit the market. Lubutu's market is divided like most into food and non-food sections. The foods available are surprisingly limited. Today I saw dried fish, spinach, avocados, red caterpillars the size of a finger (served deep fried), raw rock salt, beautiful multicoloured beans, onions, garlic, cherry tomatoes, and an occasional papaya. As there are no grocery stores here, how do people get variety in their diet? Does everyone just grow food at home? Perhaps it's just seasonal.
The non-food section of the market is equally limited. Somehow a pipeline has been created between poorly made goods from throughout the world and the Lubutu market. There are garishly colored flip-flops for sale in almost every stand; I've heard they usually break within a week. "BIC" pens work for one or two days before drying up. But the market is also where women come to buy the fabric for their dresses. These stands are eye-popping with crazy juxtapositions of color and pattern.
Once past the market, there is a branch of red earth road to the hospital and Couvent. I like to continue straight ahead, even though it's a bit farther to home. Tonight I took the long way again and passed the only multi-story building in town, the cathedral. Since I'm living in the ex-convent for the nuns, I feel a special affinity.
As an extra special treat today, a 9 year old boy walked with me from the cathedral to my front door. He sang as we walked, the same tune over and over.
Tonight there was another lovely sunset. As I pushed open the front gate; I marvelled at my luck in being here.