printer friendly iconemail a friend icon
Field Notes
Paul Salopek

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

Seeing the Congo at relative peace after so many years of war was wonderful. The healing process is far from complete, but there are hopeful signs. This was evident at the roadblocks.

The roadblock in Africa, as elsewhere, is a benchmark of fear, chaos, and tyranny. They are used to control the populace by instilling terror. There used to be thousands of them in the lawless jungles of eastern Congo, manned by drunk and lunatic militias. To approach a roadblock during the war was to ask yourself, How desperate am I to get from A to B? How lucky do I feel today? What can I afford to lose? My dignity? My worldly belongings? My life?

Today the roadblocks of the Congo have largely disappeared. The few that remain are staffed by weaklings who extort a few pennies worth of francs or a couple of cigarettes. Except for the far northeastern part of the country, ordinary Congolese can now travel freely, easing their hard lives by selling their produce at distant markets. Maybe one day the culture of roadblocks will disappear entirely from the Congo. What a blessing.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

Will stupidest do? That would be tracking grouchy elephants through the rain forest at night at the insistence of an Okapi Faunal Reserve guard who felt obliged to prove his manhood. We started out at dusk without much success. I wished to turn back. He refused. When we finally located the animals deep in the jungle, it was like walking around with a hangman's bag over your head: pitch-black, claustrophobic, terrifying. The elephants were freaked. They smashed through the darkness around us—it seemed like on top of us—knocking down trees to escape. I had visions of being shipped home in a coffin the size of carry-on luggage.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

Eastern Congo isn't quirky. Acid-tablet-chased-with-vodka-insane-followed-by-an-existential-dread-hangover-surreal, maybe. But not quirky.