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How did I get interested in tugboats?   Here is an autobiographical and long response, even though it’s only part 1 of 3, or in this case, A of A B C.   Bear with the scintillating prose, but I possess nary a single photo from this period.

To answer the frequently asked question above,  I’ve alluded to the Congo River and an unplanned trip I took almost half a century ago, my first gallivant. Memory of that voyage still burns brightly even though the trip took a mere four days and nights.  As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ve written this overdue account. Open an internet map and follow along; the following Congolese (DRC) cities are mentioned in this order, not all the river voyage: Goma, Bukavu, Kinshasa, Mbandaka, Matadi, Bolobo. The country then was called Zaire, which I’ll use in this narrative. So, let me set more of the scene.

I was 21 when this trip on the Congo River swept me along. In 1973, I had a young person’s standard illusions of invulnerability, too little wisdom or information to know fear. Today my fears discourage a repeat trip, although I occasionally consider doing it this way, mostly to take photos, but the lens in my mature brain would differently process the now-changed country and its river traffic.

Back then I didn’t even own a camera. I subscribed to the notion that with a pen and notebook I could describe everything; the error there is failing to predict how many years would pass before I returned to read those descriptions. Today when I open those notebooks, the paper is crumbling and either the ink bled into the paper or sentences I can read have references so piecemeal and cryptic that memories triggered are faint, almost useless. My memories have the challenge of illuminating across half a century, but I trust them more than the notebooks. Another source are the lush Archives of Everything called the internet, a jungle of information.

Call me no Charlie Marlow; although he and I have yarn spinning in common, Marlow’s detail is as lush as the river, but then again the literary giant Joseph Conrad himself devised the character Marlow to narrate a the journey to an intimate audience seated in a yawl around him, and they were likely NOT drinking tea. Although Conrad knew the river from the wheelhouse, I was a passenger, and new to exotic places. As you read this blog post, feel free to drink whatever you choose. As I said earlier, my account is long, so pour yourself an extra. I’ve divided the account into three parts. If you choose to think I was intrepid in taking this trip, fine, although the truth is that as a quite typical 21-year old, I saw fewer causes for alarm, an innocent abroad not quickly enough moving from naïveté to experience.

It was the summer that I traveled abroad for the first time, a July series of flights from western New York to to eastern Zaire, a town called Goma.  Then I got on a bus that crept along a narrow, sinuous road beside a volcanic lake the last 120 miles to Bukavu, specifically, a Peace Corps training center in a place beyond my imagining. Bukavu was a hilly border city of 150,000 on Lake Kivu, one of the Great Rift Valley lakes in the center of the continent. To be clear, most of the 150,000 inhabitants lived in wattle/daub houses with no electricity or running water. Bukavu in colonial times (pre-1960) was referred to as the Switzerland of the Congo, an almost temperate getaway for wealthy colonials—many working in the hot, mineral-rich south—who built villas in stone and concrete curvilinear Art Deco homes and business district.  Click on the image below for the Atlas Obscura story.

After 1960, however, many of these buildings were abandoned, some damaged in the Simba rebellion, and almost all in decay, some with roofs collapsed. As impressive as they were to me, an outsider, who saw them as beautiful ruins, I understood they were for the locals a painful reminder of colonial history, practices, abuses.

In Bukavu, I studied French and Lingala, adapted to life in a new language, spending long days in small groups speaking only French. In free time, I explored on foot, with Amy—also a trainee—who spoke better French than I did and who insisted we speak only French as we hiked to markets, farms, and even had adventures (for another telling) along the Ruzizi River border with Rwanda. We both passed language tests, and became paid volunteers with the company (Peace Corps or PC, hopefully not mistaken for a member of a group Conrad mentions, the Eldorado Exploring Expedition). We were both disappointed that Amy was assigned to stay in the Bukavu area, and I to the opposite side of the country, but we said our adieus, expecting to meet up again. My destination was a boarding school near Mbandaka, a river town on the Equator itself and in Equateur Province, where I’d work for the next two years. I never saw Amy again, although I know she has done well.

At the time I knew little more than that Equateur was huge, much of it hard to get to, the least populated province of the country, the heart of Africa’s equatorial forest, the tropical wilds. I had already heard anecdotes about Equateur from my traveling comrade, Carlos, who had been a volunteer the previous year at a post not far from my destination.

To get there, Carlos and I took an Air Zaire DC-4 from Goma to the capital, Kinshasa, the most direct route. Once in Kinshasa, however, we learned that the upcountry airplane had broken down, canceling flights to Mbandaka, possibly for six weeks. With that information, we returned to the company office in Kinshasa, hoping this allowed us to be “free” until that airplane was repaired.

I had a work ethic already, but I was not ready to get to work. Time had sped by that summer, bringing so many changes that I wanted to stave off the future for a few weeks longer. I can’t stress enough how different everything becomes when you speak a new language all the time. At the training center, we were strongly encouraged to speak only French from waking up until going to sleep. This is called language immersion; you acquire a new language much more quickly if you immerse every waking hour in that language. I considered my language learning a success when I first dreamt in French. Changing languages is like changing lenses; you see the world and your interactions in it differently, you think in the new language, and you might behave differently. My “French” personality is less serious, much freer, a feeling I retain to this day whenever I’m speaking that language.

Going upcountry to Equateur also meant isolation, I imagined, whereas Kinshasa in the company hostel and money in my pocket meant socializing with new friends, other volunteers, the newest of whom had been in the country only since early July, like me. Amy wasn’t there, but being with these companions helped me process my transformative summer. They for the most too were abroad for the first time, although one volunteer had grown up in near Kinshasa, the son of missionary parents. He shared much insightful information about the country and its cultures.

“Use an alternate route but get up there ASAP” the company told Carlos and me when we mentioned the broken-down airplane. An alternate route meant only one thing, the river, the natural infrastructure. You couldn’t drive a very direct route along the river through jungle; that might take two weeks or longer with a Land Rover; no public road transport existed there, and the roads subject to washouts. River navigation was managed by ONATRA (Office National des Transports). At their ticket office, an agent said the next upbound riverboat boarded in three days, with departure whenever boarding was complete.  Previous tugster posts about Congo River transport can be found here.

Departure day soon arrived, and we caught a taxi from the hostel to the port. The river port was not an orderly place like an airport. Taxis, huge cargo trucks, motorbikes, porters with hand trucks, and hundreds of people moved slowly, randomly but decisively toward the water’s edge. Describing that crowd requires words like chaotic but also colorful and diligent. Zairian women, many of whom carried baskets or bundles on their heads and maybe a baby on their backs, wore bold colorful cloth wraps called pagnes, sometimes matching headscarves and tops, never pants or anything factory made, rarely shoes. Many men dressed in clothing washed in muddy water so often it seemed a uniform ochre; others wore parts of green military uniforms or—if economically or politically elite—they wore an abacost in shiny blue or brown fabric and patterned after what the president wore; political party members might wear a lapel pin with the green/yellow/red national flag. Men carrying the heaviest loads—on their heads—did so bare-chested and, like the women mentioned earlier, barefoot.

Descending a taxi, Carlos and I hired one of the many men there with a push cart—a box on an axle between two compact automobile wheels—at a small price to move our bags to the boat, which the ticket identified as Major Vangu. We then plunged ourselves into the crowd, pushing gently toward the river, funneling through the most obvious opening between rickety one-story buildings and improvised fences made of roofing sheets and car sheet panels. Ahead, boats of all sizes and in mostly decrepit condition were concentrated along the bank. Some were rusty wrecks, oxidation the same shade of ochre as the exposed dirt, the clothing, and the unwhitewashed buildings. Partly beached barges linked with wooden beams formed an improvised pier. The river current was visible from random floating islands—clumps of water hyacinths—hurriedly moving downstream toward Inga Falls several miles away. The hyacinths, with pretty white flowers, were an invasive species, introduced by a well-intentioned colonial who thought they might be an exotic decorative plant. They thrived and now they floated everywhere; some lodged between the boats, giving the impression of a ragbag marina inside a garden. Countless dugout canoes called pirogues, impossibly narrow and moved by one or more standing paddlers, navigated randomly as well in this anarchy of boats and plants.

Major Vangu didn’t look like a riverboat. It was more like a flotilla, a set of barges cabled together and at the downstream end, the prime mover, an immense “four-decker” tugboat. It had huge push knees on its squared off bow. The top deck—the wheelhouse—extended only about a third of the way toward the stern. It had once been painted white, but the surface was dulled, as if it had not seen paint or wash since Congolese independence in 1960, maybe since it left the Congo River shipyard in the 1950s or earlier with a Belgian name I’ve not yet been able to discover. Major Vangu was one of five integrated tug/barges (ITBs as they seem everywhere referred to in the records, French language records I might add) that moved goods and people the roughly thousand miles between Kinshasa and Kisangani, with about once-weekly departures from those terminuses. The barges had no names that I recall, but they could have had numbers that I didn’t even notice.

To be continued in parts 2 and 3.  Meanwhile, since there are zero photos here, check out this panoply of Congo riverboat images at this site.  The sixth image below “sans nom” 1974 Yangambi” might very well be Major Vangu.  It is as I remember it.



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