KIBOMBO, Democratic Republic of the Congo -- I have traveled a fair bit, and preparing for a trip is not stressful anymore. Packing comes easily; everything is laid out in my mind before I fill my suitcase. I make calls, send e-mails, set up appointments, read books.
I planned for my trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo like that -- even though few travelers dare set foot there now because conflict still flares in the northeast, and even though the Congo has seemed a magical and foreboding place to me ever since I read Joseph Conrad's novel ''Heart of Darkness" as a teenager in Vermont.
Even after arriving and being jostled through the push-pull chaos of the international airport outside Kinshasa, the capital, and after finding some relief in the high-rise apartment of an acquaintance as we watched the majestic, mud-colored Congo River flowing below, I had yet to feel a jolt of excitement. Was I losing that sense of wonder that comes with being someplace new?
Then, several days into the trip, a monkey jarred my senses as I sat beside it on a concrete stoop of a neglected and cavernous church guesthouse in Kibombo, a village that personifies ''the middle of nowhere," carved out of the jungle 650 miles east of Kinshasa.
I realized nothing had prepared me for the Congo. I was beginning to understand that this place was all about survival, and that it was useless to detach myself from that reality. I must dive into it. At any rate, surely it would engulf me, ready or not.
I was accompanied by Dominic Chavez, a photographer and familiar travel partner. We were here to investigate whether the Congo was beginning to climb out of its long misery, a history of horrors perpetuated by colonial Belgium starting in the 1870s, by the late Mobutu Sese Seko after the Congo gained independence in 1960 (and for some years after 1971 was called Zaire), and by the incessant fighting and pillaging of various militias in the last decade. Few places in the world have experienced such nonstop hell.
Nearly half our itinerary was to be spent along a 150-mile north-south corridor near the geographical heart of the Congo, from the provincial capital of Kindu to the town of Kasongo, an area that had been peaceful for two years and, I thought, a place that might hold some hope.
We were told the road was safe -- at least during the day. In the last two years, the only big incident on the road had been a lion devouring a polio vaccinator. We took off early one morning on the back seats of motorbikes -- expert local drivers, our ''chauffeurs," were at the controls -- and I was immediately enchanted by the view and the pleasure of the wind rushing by.
At first, we passed bright green fields of corn framed by thick forests. Then the road turned into a path, and the jungle seemed to march toward us, eventually stopping just at the path's edge. The canopy let in almost no light; I had to take off my sunglasses because it was like being plunged into a superhighway tunnel with them on. Every so often, we would come upon people carrying huge loads on their heads, of firewood, or pineapples, or bananas; they would lean into the wall of vines and we would zip by, missing them sometimes by a matter of inches. They still smiled at us.
For hours, the only break in the jungle came when we passed through villages of mud huts that at first seemed empty; by the time we were halfway through, dozens of children were running out at us, shouting ''Monuc, Monuc," an abbreviation used by United Nations peacekeepers. (It is the French acronym for Mission de l'Organisation des Nations Unies en Republique democratique du Congo.) Even toddlers waved and cheered.
Kibombo marked the halfway point; we arrived midafternoon, exhausted. The ride had been rodeo tough, or so it seemed to two urban dwellers. But we were also mentally tired from a fiasco the previous day. A local immigration officer in Kindu -- every town had an immigration officer, all demanded passports, and some demanded exorbitant fees to pass through -- had seized our documents and it had taken the day to get them back. (Dominic had named him Satan because when he got angry, he rolled his eyes back, showing only their whites.)
Children flocked to us at the church guesthouse in Kibombo. Among them was a young man with what seemed a furry backpack -- the monkey, it turned out.
He pressed forward.
''Do you want to buy a monkey?" he said.
A tingling of excitement rose in me. I said nothing, just locked eyes with the monkey, and then called Dominic over.
The young man put the monkey on the ground.
Dominic and I sat down nearby. The monkey was perhaps eight weeks old. At the instant of separation, the monkey reacted as a frightened human baby would, wailing wildly, shrieking, stretching his arms upward toward the young man.
The peddler looked on impassively. I wanted to reach out and comfort the monkey as I would my children, but I knew nothing about baby monkeys. It might bite or scratch. I clucked my tongue softly and bent near the monkey. It grew quiet and began slowly moving toward me. Inches away, the monkey opened his mouth slightly and started sucking on my jeans. I pulled back, fearing its teeth, but a moment later was crestfallen, realizing the monkey only wanted to nurse.
The young man pushed for the sale. The going price for a monkey in Kibombo was about $20 to $40, depending on the size -- this one, being so small, would be at the cheaper end of the scale. The monkey, I knew, was being sold for meat.
I thought about buying the monkey, but I couldn't imagine taking it home. If I gave it to someone in Kibombo, I would want it kept as a pet, but I doubted that would happen. I looked long at the young man and said no. My only solace was that I had not contributed to the monkey market, but I also hadn't altered the equation of survival -- for either the peddler or the monkey.
My mind was soon distracted from the dilemma. Across the way from the church, more than 1,000 spectators loudly cheered on two local soccer teams, both dressed smartly in uniforms; the fast play moved up and down the field, but it came to an abrupt end when a fullback from one team kicked the ball high and wide of the field, and it became lodged in the crown of a coconut palm. Despite efforts by some to shinny up the tree, the game ended on account of no ball.
Just then, people turned toward a far-off rumbling sound. ''The train! The train!" several shouted.
The thousand spectators, joined by another thousand townspeople, rushed to the train depot, many at full sprint. This was a day of high drama, the one day in a month the train comes to Kibombo. People were eager to see friends and to collect goods in greater quantities than had been available for years. The old train, which arrived with dozens of people sitting on its roof and dozens more hanging out the windows, was a new, if fragile, lifeline for the once-isolated village.
''It's a great joy," said one out-of-breath man, as he rushed forward. Chains of people passed along a relatively meager amount of goods -- cans filled with fuel, baskets overflowing with corn, and bundled stalks of sugarcane. Soon, the train was leaving, night fell suddenly, and the town grew quiet and dark, the rising moon providing dim light.
Two days later, we headed south in a four-wheel vehicle toward Kasongo. Travel was more comfortable than on the motorbikes, but it was slower as well. The heavy vehicle lumbered over deep-rutted roads that grew so narrow in parts that vines scraped both sides of the car.
Six hours into the drive, we reached the Congo River. Our driver began removing the car battery. He hired a man in a dugout canoe to paddle the battery across the quarter-mile-wide river and give it to a ferry boat captain. It turned out that the boat's battery had died long ago, and the only way for cars to cross was to provide the juice. An hour later, we were on the ferry and crossing the river.
I was thrilled -- so excited that I stood alone in the middle of the barge. Everyone else, perhaps 100 people, huddled together in small pools of shade, trying to escape the equatorial sun. I stayed put, burning up, and watching men expertly use long poles to maneuver their long canoes across the wide and powerful river.
Kasongo, 10 miles south of the river, was our final destination in the interior. Hundreds of people walked along wide dirt roads. Two-story buildings from the colonial era were bombed-out shells, casualties of fighting that had lasted five years here. They lent an air of gloom to the town.
Everywhere people seemed to be scratching out a living. The town was once full of sheep and cattle, but most of the livestock were killed and eaten during the war. Local wells were destroyed. Those who returned with the fragile peace had planted tiny gardens, and many set off every morning to fetch the nearest clean water three miles away. Life had returned to Kasongo, but it was life on the edge.
We walked into a house that had been turned into the CELPA Health Clinic (CELPA is an international network of Christian churches). It was full of people waiting to see either the nurse or a woman who had gone through a few months of health training.
In one darkened room, we discovered joy, though. Omari Mwamvuwa, 22, smiled at her newborn son. We bent over to look at him, all wrinkled, just a few hours old.
''What's the baby's name?" I said.
''I will name it after one of you," she said.
''Dominic," I said.
''Dominique," she and her two sisters said in French in unison, laughing.
Dominic laughed along; I told him he now had an obligation to return someday. We lingered, but in truth we were ready to go. People had come to us asking for money. In our guesthouse, two rats had followed us from the dining room to an outdoor patio, spurring Dominic to jump atop a table. A box of cookies had too many ants in it -- a swarm. We returned to the guesthouse, asked a worker to find some beer for us -- at any cost -- and packed to leave the next morning. We had hired a small plane.
On our way to Kasongo's grass strip of an airport the next day, we stopped by the clinic. Musa Mutupeke, 30, had given birth to a son, who was covered head to toe in baby powder. Without thinking, I asked the boy's name. Without hesitating, she said it would be mine.
''Jean," she said, laughing, again using the French.
Dominic said I would have to return now, too.
At the airport, several men appeared suddenly from the jungle, claiming to be local officials. They asked for our documents. I refused. I didn't want to lose them again. The men muttered among themselves. When the 12-seater plane landed, the men said the plane couldn't leave until the local army commander had given his approval. They said he was on his way.
We loaded our bags onto the plane, and I passed the information to the bush pilot, a young woman with long, light-brown hair whose accent gave away her birthplace: North Carolina.
She motioned us inside, closed the doors, hopped into her seat, and revved the engines. Over the noise, she shouted to us, ''I don't like Kasongo. Last time I waited for the military leader, he tried to hijack the plane."
She accelerated down the grass runway, and we were aloft. Below, we could see a car approaching the airstrip. It felt like an escape.
Contact John Donnelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Due to political instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the State Department has issued a travel advisory urging that Americans not go there. It reads, in part: ''Though UN observer forces are deployed throughout the country, unofficial armed groups and active duty troops in parts of the country are known to pillage, carjack and steal vehicles, kill extra-judicially, rape, kidnap, stir up ethnic tensions, and carry out military/paramilitary operations." Read the complete advisory at www.state.gov/travel and click on ''travel warnings" under ''emergencies and warnings."Also, because of the long period of instability, no tourism operators are working in the Kindu or Kasongo areas.