To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism

To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism

by Chuck Thompson

View All Available Formats & Editions

The guru of extreme tourism sets out to face his worst fears in Africa, India, Mexico City, and—most terrifying of all—at Disney World

In the widely-acclaimed Smile When You're Lying, Chuck Thompson laid bare the travel industry's dirtiest secrets. Now he's out to discover if some of the world's most ill-reputed destinations live up to


The guru of extreme tourism sets out to face his worst fears in Africa, India, Mexico City, and—most terrifying of all—at Disney World

In the widely-acclaimed Smile When You're Lying, Chuck Thompson laid bare the travel industry's dirtiest secrets. Now he's out to discover if some of the world's most ill-reputed destinations live up to their bad raps, while confronting a few of his own travel anxieties in the process. Whether he's traveling across the Congo with a former bodyguard from notorious dictator Joseph Mobutu's retinue or diving into the heart of India's monsoon season, To Hellholes and Back delivers Thompson's trademark combination of hilarious stories and wildly provocative opinions, as well as some surprising observations about America's evolving place in the world.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Thompson is wickedly entertaining...reminiscent of Chuck Klosterman and David Foster Wallace....The unvarnished reality in these pages might just make you more eager than ever to hit the road.” —San Francisco Chronicle on Smile When You're Lying

“If there is such a pastime as extreme tourism, Chuck Thompson is surely its guru.” —Boston Globe on Smile When You're Lying

“[Thompson] knows the score and he tallies it accurately....A dead-on demolition job...The book is a savagely funny act of revenge.” —The New York Times on Smile When You're Lying

“Riveting, hilarious, and wildly entertaining.” —Booklist

“His observations are sharp and honest. A witty, provocative tale that … packs in plenty of local flavor and amusing anecdotes.” —Kirkus

“[From] the original rogue travel writer…. Well-written, funny, and fast-paced.… It's refreshing to read a travel writer who eschews all the ‘sun-dappled vista'-style prose and tells it like it is.” —

“Filled with hilarious stories, wildly provocative opinions and unvarnished observations about world travel, To Hellholes and Back proves Thompson is not only a sharp, gritty writer but a fearless man of travel.” —Zink Magazine

“Extremely irreverent.” —Outside Magazine

“[A] tour de force à la Eat, Pray, Love, only with snarky commentary and well, not a hint of spirituality…” —Brave New Traveler

“[A] humorous send-up to these four … fascinating destinations…. It's dirty, scandalous, and it'll give you a completely fresh perspective on travel, travel writing, and the travel industry.” —The Lost Girls

“[Thompson's] incisive observations and biting sense of humor make for some riveting reading.” —The Denver Post

Publishers Weekly
If you’ve ever wondered how a frat boy would fare in the Congo, then Thompson (Smile When You’re Lying) has written the book for you. It’s not just the Congo either; the former Maxim editor and “extreme tourism” expert also slogs across Mexico City, India and Disney World. Along the way, he encounters elephant penises, eight-year-old boxers and naked gurus who climb into the shower with him. Thompson’s stated reason for his extreme tourism is that Americans have grown soft, and he must prove his travel writer toughness by going places he doesn’t want to go. Thompson uses a Maxim-derived prose that features present-tense narration and unfortunate similes. Every page is disfigured by a phrase like “Flat as the Kinshasa investment market, and brown as a turd....” Thompson poses as an iconoclast, but his critiques skew toward the obvious (he notes that there are two Indias, one rich and one poor, and that Disney “runs a very tight ship”). Sanctimonious liberals provide one target, as does soccer—not manly enough for Thompson, and they don’t score enough goals. In the end, Thompson’s observations and strained prose will wear thin on readers. (Dec.)
Kirkus Reviews
Veteran travel writer Thompson (Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, 2007, etc.) faces personal fears and journeys to places he has deliberately avoided his entire adult life. The author defines "extreme tourism" as travel that tests personal boundaries-physical or emotional-and he chooses four destinations simply because they are places he does not want to visit: the Congo, India, Mexico City and Disney World. Thompson claims that he has always been afraid of the Congo due to disease; India because of the gastrointestinal peril that seems to affect everyone who visits; Mexico City for its violent crime and pollution; Disney World because it represents everything wrong with America today. As he treks across the globe, his assumptions and fears about each destination are addressed, if not debunked, with wry, self-deprecating humor. The author was never robbed in Mexico City; everyone he met was warm and hospitable. He put himself in incredible danger while on safari in the Congo by foolishly venturing off alone, but dodging deadly pathogens took a backseat to his quest to discover the funniest joke in Africa. The worst part of India were the cab drivers, and Disney World was not the villainous cultural black-hole of his nightmares-a chat with a former "Dream Squad" worker about a cancer-stricken family member moved him to tears. Yet as Thompson deftly sums up in his epilogue, "as my catalog of international experiences stacked up against the Bush-Obama-Palin electoral circus and dissolving economic fortunes in the States . . . I began to realize that my travels had become less about surviving horrors abroad and more about facing up to ones at home." The authormakes no bones about his political or social views, from the Bush Administration to childhood obesity, but his observations are sharp and honest. A witty, provocative tale that may not encourage extreme tourism but packs in plenty of local flavor and amusing anecdotes. Agent: Joelle Delbourgo/Joelle Delbourgo Associates

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt


Trouble starts as soon as I clear customs and meet Henri in the parking lot of Kinshasa's N'Djili International Airport. Henri introduces himself, shakes my weary hand with his damp one, pulls the cigarette from the side of his mouth, exhales like the last survivor at Dien Bien Phu, and says, "There are a few problems we need to discuss."

Five minutes in country and already things are going to hell. Actually, things have been hell here for some time. It's just me who's new to the game.

The problems concern the itinerary Henri and I have spent the past month hammering out over phone and by e-mail. My Congo plans revolve around a jungle town called Mbandaka, a place whose name alone had radiated sufficient exotic appeal to whip me into a state of blind enthusiasm during my planning back in the States. I'm the kind of chump who sees names like Chittagong or Zamboanga on a map and says, "Only a fourteen-hour bus ride out of our way? How come we haven't left yet?"

From Kinshasa we were scheduled to fly to Mbandaka, where we'd buy supplies before striking out on a week-long canoe trip down a series of remote jungle rivers. These obscure waterways would lead us through pygmy villages and eventually to a hidden treasure of biodiversity called Lake Tumba. Henri has promised a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I've been around enough to know that being stranded for two days in Blythe, California, with a busted radiator also constitutes a "once-in-a-lifetime adventure," but as I'm soon to learn, in the Congo you're forced to look past all manner of red flags when you place your well-being in the hands of guys to whom your only real connection is an e-mail address.

"The first problem is that the airline we were to fly to Mbandaka has gone out of business," Henri says. "This happened last week."

Henri speed walks ahead, keeping just beyond arm's reach of both me and the pack of child beggars who trail in our wake.

"The second problem is that the other airline with routes to Mbandaka has only one flight this week. And it is full. Same for next week."

Henri looks over his shoulder to gauge my level of disappointment. After a moment he nods as if to say, "OK, the quiet type, I get it," then continues.

"The third problem is that the destinations on this afternoon's schedule are closed due to the fact that it is Sunday."

For weeks, my visits to the Congolese art museum and bonobo reserve have been planned for the afternoon of my arrival. Had Henri been unaware until now that they'd be closed on Sunday?

"Will they be open tomorrow?" I ask.

"Probably not."

Much as I'd been looking forward to communing with the freakishly humanlike bonobos, today's closures don't crush me. After the trip from Johannesburg, I'm happy for any excuse to trade sightseeing for a hotel bed and strategically placed fan blasting the layers of sweat off my face. For the entire flight from South Africa, the hairy Greek arms dealer in aviator shades beside me had maintained aggressive dominion over the armrest. Behind us, a man carried on for three straight hours in one of those amazing African languages in which it's impossible to tell if the speaker is winning big at the roulette table or merely preparing to hit his wife.

"What about the plane tickets?" I begin to pull out of my steerage-class stupor with the recollection that I'd prepaid both of our flights to Mbandaka. Nine hundred dollars. "Have you gotten a refund?"

"I am working on that."

Having built himself up on the phone and e-mail as a sort of postmodern buccaneer, Henri's appearance comes as something of a surprise. A white European in his mid-fifties, he's pale and a little paunchy. He wears faded slacks and a short-sleeved, white dress shirt with deeply entrenched sweat stains. His eyes are loose and watery and his gray hair has the look of a heavily teased Shredded Wheat biscuit. Despite my reluctance to employ any Congo material from the stupendously overemphasized Joseph Conrad, I'm compelled to borrow the Heart of Darkness author's description of Kurtz and apply it to the cagey, superior, and yet somehow endearingly irascible Henri: "All of Europe had contributed to the making of him."

We arrive at Henri's car, an ancient Mercedes sedan with dents in all four doors, its white paint job long since humbled into a mottle of rust and scrapes. The seats are torn to the stuffing. Rats appear to have been gnawing on the dashboard. Several instrument gauges have been removed, leaving gaping holes and naked wires dangling from the panel. Tomorrow during a thundershower I'll discover that the reason the passenger-side windows are always rolled down is because they were never replaced after being bashed out by thieves.

Loitering around the Mercedes are five or six African men I take for drug dealers. Or car thieves. Or loan collectors.

It turns out they work for Henri.

Henri introduces our driver D. B. (for Daniel Bertrand), a short, muscular guy with a prominent Cherokee nose and fixed expression about as cheery as an Armenian funeral. His smooth black head shines like it's been tumbled inside a rock polisher. He's fifty-four, but looks thirty-five.

During Joseph Mobutu's poisonous dictatorial regime (which lasted here from 1965 to 1997), D. B. was the personal chauffeur to one of Mobutu's brothers—a prestigious and occasionally dangerous gig. He'd won the job in part because of his exemplary military career, six-dan black belt in karate, and all-around "fucking with me would be a very bad idea" disposition.

"If action comes, I know the meaning of it," D. B. tells me in halting English while unhooking a pair of wires that keep the trunk closed.

Henri's man Friday is Gilles, a slim, handsome Congolese in his early thirties with the kind of Siamese eyes that leave you fairly certain Chinese merchants were landing up and down the African coast centuries before the white slavers.

"Unlike most Africans, Gilles does not wait to be told what to do," Henri informs me while his star employee stands next to us smoking and examining the clouds. "He anticipates problems and fixes them. This will make him invaluable to you. He will find a solution to the Mbandaka problem."

Gilles nods at me while I hoist my bag into the trunk. I've already been in Africa for nearly three weeks—mostly on safari in Botswana, Zambia, and Namibia, then in South Africa—and I've got Gilles pegged. Cool is in the African DNA. Two-thirds of the guys you meet here have the slow-breeze demeanor of 1930s jazz musicians. You almost respect guys like Gilles more for not helping a brother out with the luggage.

Henri, D. B., and Gilles form the core of Team Congo, my escort, eyes, and ears for much of the next fifteen days. Drinking buddies are one thing, but I've never had a genuine posse before, so even the lack of get-to-know-you chitchat and piece-of-shit Mercedes don't dim my white guy overenthusiasm for this one.

In addition to the principals, Team Congo will be supplemented by a taxi squad of sundry specialty types who'll move in and out of our orbit for the next two weeks without their official role or connection to the mission ever being formally declared. One such functionary is lounging on the hood of the car—a round, bald-headed, evil-looking dude named Jacques whose chunky baritone voice is the aural equivalent of wet cement. Henri tells me that Jacques maintains connections at every level of Congolese society—from shoeshine boys to government ministers—though over the next two weeks the man will fail at every single opportunity to distinguish himself as a results-oriented worker. If Gilles is worried about competition within the organization gunning for his gig, he's not sweating Jacques.

"How are the roads to Mbandaka?" I ask, beginning to stress over my crumbling itinerary. "Can't we just drive there?"

All the Africans laugh.

"There are no roads to Mbandaka," D. B. says. "This is Congo. Mbandaka is eight hundred kilometers from here. Between us only jungle."

"There's got to be another way," I say.

"Perhaps," Henri says, taking another meaningful huff on his cigarette. "Either way, it will be settled."

Planning a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is like going through puberty. For all the mystery, anticipation, and terrifying rumors, there's a startling lack of hard information about the whole experience. It seems to take forever for anything to happen, there's a troubling number of uncomfortable and unexpected procedures to deal with (buying a jock strap, getting a yellow fever shot, signing up for the selective service, finding a visa sponsor, etc.), and for a long time the more over eager the greenhorn is for action, the more elusive action seems to be. A week into my largely gridlocked research back home, I'd figured out enough about the Congo to realize that landing there without contacts would put me roughly where I'd been at fifteen—anxiety prone, angry at my inability to be taken seriously, and jerking off alone somewhere wondering why I wasn't getting invited to any of the cool parties. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

I didn't want a tour guide in the Congo—few things aggravate me more than being prisoner to someone else's schedule—so much as I needed a friend. Or at least someone who knew the difference between deep bongo and survivable Congo. For two months I surfed the Net, called "We go everywhere in Africa" travel agencies, scanned guidebooks, followed bum steers in adventure magazines, wrote to the Congolese embassy in Washington, e-mailed friends with Africa connections, attempted to worm my way into the graces of religious and human aid agencies with ongoing missions in Africa, and talked to guys like Sam Kiley, all of whom gave me some version of the same story: "Nobody goes to the Congo."

Finally, a guy who'd stopped running Congo tours years ago—"Too bloody dangerous"—e-mailed me with the name of a European expat living in Kinshasa known to hire out his services to visitors. A "fixer" in the parlance of Africa freelancers, Henri wasn't just my first break in the already extremely frustrating Operation Congo, he was the first person I talked to about the DRC who didn't scoff, hang up, or accuse me of having a death wish. Instead he asked, "How much can you spend?"

"About two thousand dollars." This seemed like an extravagant sum for two weeks of insta-friend in one of the world's poorest countries.

This is when Henri scoffed.

"How does five thousand sound?" he asked.

Even in the midst of the battle to chisel him down to four thousand, I'd sensed that Henri was my kind of Euro, nothing like the mismatched gang of bloodless Europeans with whom I'd spent the preceding two weeks on safari, a group so concerned with not offending anybody (at least not to the Germans' faces) that they couldn't work up a therapeutic session of America bashing even after I'd lied and told them I was a Republican. Believe me, when it's 105 in the shade in Namibia and no one's spotted so much as a dung beetle for three hours, you do what you can to shake things up.

Traveling in poor countries, I've often found it useful to carry small gifts to give as thanks to helpful strangers or just to make friends with potential photo subjects. Candy bars or gum generally do the trick. To the Congo I've hauled a bag of Starburst singles, an assortment of individually wrapped DayGlo squares I'd picked up back home at day-after-Halloween prices.

Driving through Kinshasa—the congestion is so bad it takes two hours to get from airport to hotel—I realize what a sad and inadequate gesture a bag of candy is in the face of the city's desolate millions, many of whom, D. B. tells me while the Team Congo Mercedes slogs through traffic liked a drugged rhino, often go two or three days without eating. The moment I'd walked outside of the airport terminal child beggars had appeared and I'd known at once that breaking out the candy would set off a pint-sized riot of outstretched hands and open mouths. I'd walked through heartbreaking Third World poverty plenty of times, so it's startling to ponder the well-intentioned delusion I was operating under when I bought that bag of Starburst back home. It's true, I'm often as clueless about travel as many of the people I complain about.

Kinshasa is a reeking slum of heroic dimensions. Between the airport and city center stand relentless miles of street-to-street squalor. Hills of garbage spill into the banks of filthy drainage creeks. Shanties fall apart like bad alibis. People are everywhere. And children. God, the children. You've never seen so many. Children, children, children, children. Dressed in dish rags. Thin as sparrows.

"They are happy at this age of life," D. B. notes of a group of five- and six-year-olds laughing and running down the street playing tag, completely unsupervised, completely unaware of the broken glass, mongrel dogs, and Olympic filth that surrounds them.

There are 6.5 million people in the capital, most of whom will die before age fifty. My fear of walking into a French-speaking country with no greater familiarity with the language than a fleeting though personally rewarding Serge Gainsbourg period is ameliorated by the fact that about half of all Congolese receive no formal education and thus speak little more French than I do. This doesn't stop people from referring to Kinshasa as the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. Judging by the way Gilles takes his nicotine, however, the locals do smoke cigarettes just as joylessly as the French.

According to the World Bank, the Congo is one of the top five countries in the world with the largest number of children out of school. At least 50 percent are completely outside of the school system. Henri tells me only about 15 percent advance beyond primary school; less than 1 percent attend university. Schooling at all levels is dominated by males. This means you'll probably never meet a Congolese woman with a college degree—and if you do you should regard her odds-beating with Powerball awe. You have a better chance of spotting a leopard or bonobo in the wild than chatting up a female Congolese high school graduate.

As for the DRC itself, it's a massive country bordering nine nations and encompassing as much land as the entire United States east of the Mississippi. Despite vast natural resources—copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold, rubber, oil, timber—mismanagement, corruption, and war have conspired to lock the country in perpetual poverty. Per capita annual income is ninety-eight dollars. Despite this, more than seven million people, even impoverished ones, carry cell phones.

Incidentally, I'll continue to let Catherine Zeta-Jones seduce me, but does the fact that my monthly cell phone bill nearly equals the annual personal income of a highly cellularized country suggest to anyone else that we may be paying criminally inflated prices for our technology? Or just that I need to finally break down and switch carriers? Just thinking out loud here.

The most fascinating Congo stat is that of the country's 58 million people, only 230,000 work in private-sector jobs or are enrolled in the national social security system. The most current figures available are from five years ago, but the situation scarcely appears to have changed. The black market and "informal" untracked economy overwhelmingly dominate every aspect of commerce.

As we drive through the city, I ask Henri how these millions survive with no salaries, no businesses, no goods to trade, no plots of land, no financial safety net. After a while he says, "The truth is, I don't know. I have no idea how so many of them manage." A decade and a half in the city and the mystery of Congolese survival is as complete to him as it is to me. In response to the same question D. B. and Gilles just shrug, then continue gazing blankly out the windows.

I've seen the worst of Manila, Bangkok, Baltimore, and Newark, and up to now these have stood as my personal standard for the kind of societal devastation that leaves you dumbstruck. In terms of communal wreckage, however, Kinshasa easily surpasses any city I've ever been to. A more desperate collection of humanity I never expect to encounter again. Of course, I still have India and Disney World in my sights.

"The UN guys walk around scared shitless." Henri says this as we pass a barbed-wire compound with machine-gun towers looming over the streets. "But the organization can be helpful at times, such as when we need to get somewhere."

There are eighteen thousand international peacekeepers stationed in the Congo, the largest UN force anywhere in the world. In fact, the organization is the first thing you notice when landing at N'Djili Airport, where a fleet of airplanes with the large UN logo in impotent blue (coincidentally, a Martha Stewart Colors shade) sits wingtip to wingtip on the tarmac. Henri raises the possibility of hopping a UN flight to Mbandaka. Jacques, the evil baldy from the airport, is supposedly on the case.

"Aren't UN flights reserved for official personnel?" I ask. It seems weird to be able to hop onto a UN jet with no credentials.

"Officially, yes." Henri lowers his eyelids in a Rick's Café way. "But if they have space, they will allow humanitarian workers to fly."

Henri explains that Jacques has contacts within the UN and that the pygmies whose villages we're scheduled to paddle through will unwittingly support a ruse that we're international relief workers.

"The pygmies are treated like slaves by the local Bantu population," D. B. says in an attempt to get me onboard with the plan.

I nod and say, "Just as long as nobody asks me to man a machine-gun nest." Nobody laughs. I can't tell if this is because they don't understand sarcasm or simply that, as at airport security, witty rejoinders about automatic weapons aren't what pass for humor in Kinshasa.

Henri was meant to be my insurance against the kinds of hassles I'd been fearing for the past three months—cancelled flights being a good example—but even from the States I could tell he represented the highest odds on the table in my Congo roll of the dice. Crafty, surly, offensive, unpredictable—these aren't qualities I normally look for in friends, but I'd already seen enough out the window of the Mercedes to appreciate that they might come in handy here.

By the end of the first day in the presence of his weird, chatty energy, I'd begun to compile the Gospel of the Congo according to Henri:

"The Congolese are far more afraid of Ebola than AIDS. It's why many have stopped eating monkey. No one has stopped having sex."

"Tourism in Kinshasa is a married man taking his girlfriend to a pool at a hotel on the weekend, having a swim, a meal, then back to the room for fucking. That is the extent of tourism here."

"When the husband goes off with his girlfriends, the wife is not jealous. She is angry because he is spending money on girlfriends that should be coming into the household to buy food and clothing for the children. The fucking is not the issue; it's the money that angers the wife."

"Married or not, African men are going to have a lot of partners. That is just how it works and it does not do any good to protest."

"If Africans could be paid for all the dancing and fucking they do, Africa would be the wealthiest continent on earth."

"I would never spend my holiday in Congo."

"The Congolese are a gentle people. There is no safety issue here at all. There is very little crime."

"I am not interested in the country itself. I am here because I love the daily fight. I need that adrenaline. When I go back to Europe for a visit, I am bored without anything to fight over."

"The Congolese are begging for the Belgians to come back as rulers. With the Belgians at least there were schools and hospitals and government employees were paid."

Henri is proud of the fact that he's been able to keep his clients out of trouble: "So far, none of my clients have been arrested. Well, one guy, from the UK. He was found taking pictures of young boys and girls. But I had some discussions with the right people, and he was let go and sent home."

Henri himself was arrested several years back, he says, on false charges of stealing money from his company. "I have no investors. It is a company of one person. How can I be stealing from myself?" He spent eleven nights in jail before buying his way out with five thousand dollars.

So what's it like inside a Congolese prison?

"I had money, so it was no problem. I had my friends bring me food every day and also food for many of the others inside, so I was popular and allowed to sleep peacefully each night."

The subject of poverty finally stirs Henri's scant sense of public relations.

"Congo is one of the richest countries in the world," he insists. "Here you have oil, uranium, diamonds, gold, all in abundance."

"Well, potentially, one of the richest countries in the world," I interject.

"Yes, right, one of the richest."

Henri has been in the Congo fifteen years. Living in France in 1992, he tried to import tropical fish from the Congo to sell to aquarium owners around Europe. He found a supplier and set up a large order. Between the fish, shipping fees, insurance, customs bribes, dock and loading charges, taxes, agent commissions, and other costs associated with the maddening world of import/export, Henri sunk twenty-five thousand dollars' worth of francs into his first shipment. All of his fish arrived on time. All were dead.

"My supplier had no idea how to pack fish for shipment," he tells me. "The insurance company refused to cover my loss because it turns out this guy had faked his paperwork. He was not even a licensed vendor."

Outraged and nearly broke, Henri flew to Kinshasa to confront his vendor and was quickly consumed by the country. He moved down for good a couple years later and has been here ever since running a variety of businesses, mostly exporting various goods including, for a while, tropical fish. Now he's a jack-of-all-trades who sees a future, of a sort, in tourism. Which is why he's agreed to act as my escort. Since 2002, I'm only the third American client he's had, but he remains bullish on his chances.

"I have been in jail, survived Mobutu, and two civil wars," he says. "I love this country. Every day is different. You cannot compare yesterday to today. In Europe and America, you already know what tomorrow will be like. You know what next year will be like. Here, you have no idea. We are now driving freely down the road. In one hundred meters we could be arrested for no reason. Probably not, but we would not be surprised if it happened.

"In Europe, I have never been arrested. I need this country. You want some company for the night? With a condom it's no problem."

I can't tell if this is a rhetorical question or not. Just to be on the safe side I say, "No, thanks," and explain that even if I wasn't married I wouldn't have casual sex in a place known as the cradle of AIDS with a triple wrapping of latex, aluminum foil, and burlap with a sealant of waterproof caulk around my dick and a coating of marine-grade polyurethane over my nut sack for safekeeping. Henri looks at my crotch and says, "I am married also; I was just asking for you. If you change your mind, it's not a problem to arrange."

There were available to me, of course, options beyond hooking on with a group of strangers for an ad hoc tour of the Congo's more desolate corners. The classic outing in this part of the world is the barge expedition up the Congo River past Mbandaka and into Joseph Conrad's mythic "heart of darkness." Since it's impossible to come to the Congo and not confront the gloomy shadow Conrad still casts over the place, I'll dispense with the subject up front.

Most writers who visit the Congo, and just about everyone else, invariably get sucked into the "Conrad's footsteps" deal and, worse, feel obliged to mimic not simply the man's century-old journey but his mournfully obtuse style: In the pilot house the helmsman, filled with drink, eyes the color of smoke, stoically matriculated our solemn passage with an oppressive oath as the damp vessel snaked through a greasy waterway into the green-black forest bruised with a noxious fog of sorrow, hunger, desperation, abandonment...death like a widow's shroud assembled its proxies with hungry certitude at each moaning bend, the enveloping presence of unspeakable secrets an intolerable weight hovering above the sepulchral gloaming that stalked like sluggish murmurs this apiary of malignant pilgrims. Etc.

There's no disputing Conrad's rank as a master, but every time I read him I find myself wishing that just once he'd pull out of his mood, walk into the equatorial sun, wipe the sweat from his brow, and break up his constipated labor with something like "It was hotter than two rats fucking inside a wool sock."

I have no interest in traversing a well-worn literary rut, and not just for what should be the writer's obligatory aversion to exhaustively covered ground. Harper's, Travelers' Tales, and other high-minded publishers are credible institutions, but I've always disliked that "following in Hemingway's footsteps" or "retracing the Silk Road" gimmick publishers like to keep alive out of some half-noble duty to posterity. What's the point of these self-indulgent exercises? To demonstrate how some things have changed over time and some haven't? Well, no shit.

I mention Harper's because just before I left the States, the magazine ran a very good, thoughtful piece called "The River Is a Road" by a writer named Bryan Mealer describing his Congo River journey and inevitable encounters with the merchants, fishermen, vegetable traders, soldiers, and everyday river folk who ride the slow-moving barges not out of a sense of adventure but out of economic necessity. It all came across colorful as hell, but if you have any experience on Old World ferries and can read between the lines a little, it becomes obvious that the main problem with seven days on a slow boat is that almost nothing interesting ever happens on them. That's why you end up acting like quotes from the guy with four teeth and two coops of chickens amount to the type of wizened pronouncements that "It takes a village" bozos back home eat up like mashed cassava.

By the way, if you really think villages are so great, spend a year in an African one and see how you like starving, washing in a river the guys upstream dump their shit in, and having your neighbors up your ass seven days a week. For more on why "Let's bring the lessons of the Third World back to the States" is pure idiocy, see page 154.

The Harper's story included the observation that Conrad saw so much hell in the Congo "that he was inspired to write Heart of Darkness, a description the country has yet to live down." My immediate reaction to this was, "Absolutely right and to hell with Conrad and his septic analysis of everything Africa put in front of him." Old Joe pinned the tail on that donkey in 1902. Sure, the country has its horrors—admittedly more than most—but it's not like the natives are attacking up and down the river and ivory is being hauled out of the jungle by the Kurtzload. It's a great book, but perhaps one reason the Congo can't shake its gruesome reputation is that no one is willing to let it. Would it be too much to ask to allow the Congo to get on with the twenty-first century already?

Conrad himself had a monstrous time in the Congo. He saw more than his fill of death. He fell ill with fever and dysentery and was further hindered by what modern cubicle culture would call a "personality conflict" with his boss, a turf-guarding dickhead who denied Conrad the steamboat captaincy he'd come to the Congo to assume. Conrad left Africa broken and defeated. And then wrote his nasty little piece of revenge filled with hate, misery, fear, madness, massacre, and party starters like, "Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose."

Ruminations such as this one went on to inform a century of Africa travel writing, but they also inspired an international allegory I don't care to perpetuate. Flat as the Kinshasa investment market and brown as a turd, that river belongs to others and I'm happy to let them keep it. I've come to the Congo to confront fear, not create it.

There are hundreds of great books and travelogues that recap historical horrors in Africa, and I prepped for my trip by reading a handful of them. I found most to be excellent and exceedingly dour, tinged with the inevitable influence of Conrad, as though written by people who, the minute they set foot in the place, tightened their jaws and became good and goddamned determined to approach their subject (and not coincidentally themselves) with immeasurable gravity and battle-hardened seriousness. One of the requirements of visiting Africa seems to be casting off your sense of humor somewhere over the Atlantic.

I get that in the face of disease, famine, and war the last thing you want as a visitor is to come off as an insensitive, hooting bonehead. In addition to being personally unattractive, this seems like a fast way to get on shit lists of organizations like the Congo's Hutu militia, the Interahamwe, whose name literally means "Those who stand together," but which has also been interpreted as "Those who kill together."

Even so, I'm a guy who likes a laugh now and then and I don't see why Africa or, more specifically, people reading about Africa should be deprived of a little levity. Maybe one reason we're so intimidated by Africa is that every image we get from the place involves hospital misery, rural starvation, angry mobs, and eight-, ten-, and twelve-year-old boys with AK-47s. After a few weeks in Africa I'd seen far more laughing and joking than shooting and stabbing, and I began wondering why Westerners so often come away from the continent with such long faces.

The more I thought about it, the more I began blaming Conrad for the anxiety I felt about Africa. I didn't come here as an aid worker, diplomat, anthropologist, epidemiologist, peacekeeper, election observer, war correspondent, or colonial river pilot. I'm a tourist. Why should that obligate me to confront the worst parts of the place? Without close contact with societal ills have I not experienced the "real" Africa, as opposed to the sensational continent exploited on CNN, BBC, and other bastions of global fearmongering? Weren't the friendly and trustworthy African guides I'd met on safari as bona fide as militia rebels in the field?

And if as a traveler with a social conscience I'm required by some invisible authentication board to amass what my friend Glasser calls "phantom university credits," are visitors to such "most livable" cities as Portland, Oregon, bound by the same requirements? Does experiencing the "real" Portland mean joining the army of homeless ghosts who line up each morning outside the city's most notorious shelters? Should they be shown the place where sewer lines pour filth into the once pristine Willamette River, making it unsafe for drinking, swimming, fishing, and just about anything else a river is useful for? Should tourists hoping to form a valid perspective of San Francisco line up at 5:30 a.m. in front of one of the city's methadone clinics—as I did with a junkie friend one deeply depressing morning years ago—to bear witness to the sad string of refugees from one of our country's many ill-defined wars? Do junkies represent the "real" America any more than the Grand Canyon or Yosemite; any more than Kinshasa's slum dwellers and AIDS clinics represent the "real" Africa vis-à-vis my organized safari or the thundering thrill of Victoria Falls?

Wherever you go in the world, most people are pretty nice. They're eager to show you the best parts of the places they live. What gives interlopers the right to riffle through their dirty laundry?

Having made the choice to shove sad Joe off the heights of Mt. Sacrilege, I proceed full bore into my Conradian antipathy by deciding to devote the rest of my trip to a search for the funniest joke in Africa. Had I stopped to consider the ill will I was likely to provoke by wading into such an impolitic swamp—"After slaughtering a village full of women and children, three Hutu Interahamwe walk into a bar and say..."—I might have aborted the plan to mine the Dark Continent for laughs before it had time to gestate. Luckily, D. B. happens to know two illuminating Congo jokes that he's happy to share.

"Two grasshoppers leave Egypt for a trip to the southern tip of Africa," D. B. begins, stone-faced as ever while I whip out my notebook with cub-reporter excitement.

"They are determined to see the entire continent. The grasshoppers have a good time sightseeing in places like Kenya and Uganda, but when they reach Congo they stop at the border. They discuss the matter and after a few minutes decide to end their journey and head back to Egypt."

Yep, that's the punch line, folks. And if you aren't choking with laughter it's presumably because you've never had a grasshopper wing stuck in your throat.

"This joke we tell on ourselves because people in Congo love to eat grasshoppers," D. B. says, clearly bummed by my tepid reaction. I pass along the best advice I ever got about jokes—"Never repeat 'em; never explain 'em"—and scribble in my notebook something earnest about the "Western concept of jokes juxtaposed with Congo's lack of ready hilarity."

Concerned that my brilliant "Funniest Joke in Africa" idea might be tougher to pull off than I thought, I nevertheless ask D. B. for his follow-up. Fortunately, his second joke turns out to be a little better than the first, proving yet again that the warm-up act is a reliable downer in any culture. D. B. squares his shoulders and says (believe me, this works better paraphrased):

When God was creating the world he reached into his pockets and began dispersing blessings around the planet—mountains and plentiful water to North America, abundant farmland to Asia, magnificent cities and culture to Europe, and so on. When he got to the Congo, however, he realized that he had too much left over, so that when he emptied his pockets the country received the most riches of all—a mighty river, endless forests, lush hills, magnificent wildlife, fertile plains, oil, gold, copper, and every mineral known to man. Noting this disparity of resources, one of his angels came to him and said, "God, it is unfair to the rest of the world. You have bestowed too much wealth upon the Congo." To which God replied, "Ah, but you haven't seen the people I plan to put there."

Although everyone but me has heard it before, this one gets a pretty good laugh in the car. Even the aloof Gilles flashes me a catlike smile.

"This joke we tell on ourselves to explain Congo's poor condition in the world despite our great potential," D. B. explains, turning left onto another impossibly disorganized stretch of road and, not for the last time, ignoring the gift of my finely honed Western wisdom.

TO HELLHOLES AND BACK Copyright © 2009 by Chuck Thompson

Meet the Author

Chuck Thompson, the author of Smile When You're Lying, is a former features editor for Maxim and was the first editor in chief of Travelocity magazine and served as part of the editorial team for the launch of He has traveled on assignment in more than thirty-five countries and his writing and photography have appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, National Geographic Adventure, Playboy, Spy, Escape, WWE Magazine, Outside, Men's Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >