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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Congo: Land of Jungles

From the majestic lion to the leathery rhinoceros, from the cackling hyena to the superintelligent ape, the African Congo’s flora and fauna stand as a symbol of the infinite mystery and variety of a plenteous Earth. The womb that gave rise to the human species, this nest of ordered chaos has inspired numberless works of literature, from Heart of Darkness, to Apocalypse Now, to Predator II: The Book.

And yet, I had none of these lofty works in mind as I drifted lazily down the Congo River on an aging wooden ferry. Instead, I concerned myself only with the African heat that pricked at my skin, and my abject failure at getting someone on board to mix me a decent Cosmopolitan. I had tried clicking my tongue at them and jumping up and down, but all it had earned me was an extra sheen of brow sweat and a near-unpalatable Mai Tai.

I violently spat the drink out, misting the passengers on the upper deck, and tossed the glass overboard. Already I was questioning whether I had made the right decision in accepting my Editor’s offer to trek the heart of Africa for a thousand-word Internet column.

It was true: my writing had dried up as of late, and the Opium use had only increased since I started receiving regular checks from the site. I had tried to go back to huffing gasoline to save some money, but the buzz was never quite the same. In any case, there was only one explanation for the shakes and nausea I was suddenly getting: I was homesick.

I thought of my two boys, Sam and Dex, locked in their rooms back home with a Television and a jumbo bag of frozen Taquitos, awaiting my return in a few days time, and felt a tear well up.

I let my eyes wander towards the horizon, and our final destination. The sun setting on the water seemed to set the river aflame, as if we were sailing on a burnished golden mirror, or through a giant trough of urine. Reaching into my L.L. Bean khaki adventurer’s vest, I retrieved a notepad and pen that I had purchased for the trip, opened to the first page—blank—and jotted down my impressions:

Golden river … trough of urine.

It needed something, I decided. I wasn’t painting a picture, wasn’t letting my readership feel what Africa was really about. I looked at the boat and passengers, waiting for another kernel of truth to bubble to the surface.

Everyone’s black here, I wrote a moment later.

I closed the pad, satisfied. The heat was beginning to abate now, and a bell rang out dully, announcing that we would soon arrive in Mbandaka. It was there that I would meet my guide, and journey deep into the jungle, hoping to get a taste of “the real Africa” to supplement what knowledge I had already gleaned from National Geographic pieces and In Living Color marathons. Even my raging jungle fever seemed to subside as I considered the paradox of this verdant, and yet impoverished realm.

The sound of the captain’s bass voice announcing our arrival snapped me out of my reverie. Like some foreign-dubbed Louis Armstrong, his proclamation rumbled throughout the ship and shook its way into my very bones. “What a wonderful world,” I whispered, pushing roughly past an elderly African woman to be the first onshore.

My hired guide, Madongo, was waiting for me along with a small troupe of others, all dressed in the traditional garb I had required them to wear. I thought their donning tribal costumes and paint would help lend an air of romance to the trip. I was not wrong.

Madongo’s name means “uncircumcised” in the language of his people, and this fact was made apparent as we began trudging wordlessly towards the deeper parts of the jungle. Indeed, whenever I fell behind, entranced by the sight of a rare and beautiful flower or made to squeal in girlish terror by a flying bug the size of my fist, I quickly found my way again by following the track left by Madongo’s enormous member as it dragged across the jungle floor.

A quarter mile into our hike, I decided to make a sketch of Madongo in my notebook. I drew a crude approximation of his wide frame, penis peeking out from under his front-robe like a black wiffle bat, just below where I’d written Everyone’s black here. I circled the penis several times and closed the notebook.

Now we’re cooking, I thought, and ordered one of the natives to carry me the rest of the way, as I had become weary and wished to nap. While we journeyed ever deeper into the jungle, I nodded off, lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of my obedient man-horse.

I dreamed of Madongo and myself, transported to a labyrinthine maze of topiary hedges, I riding in his strong arms while he hacked a path to freedom using only a machete. There was a rainbow overhead.

When I awoke, I lay face down in the mud, with my troupe nowhere in sight. I rolled over and sat up, utterly bewildered and still fighting the effects of post-nap grogginess. I soon found that I was in a pen, having been sold by Madongo to an African tribe in exchange for three crates of Eclipse chewing gum and a single napkin.

The rest of my visit to Africa proved to be a long, rambling, and nearly incoherent tale of enchantment, piracy, helicopter battles, and whirling tiger attacks. I returned home nearly six months later, on a hand-made raft of wood planks and dried spittle.

I had lost many things in Africa: my notebook, my vest, a large piece of one ear, and my aversion to giving blowjobs in exchange for food. But in exchange, I had gained a deep understanding of Africa, in the form of an incurable distrust of Black people. And that has made all the difference.

Also, Sam and Dex were dead.

Michael Swaim is a humor writer whose work appears regularly on Cracked. He is also cofounder and head writer for the Internet sketch troupe Those Aren't Muskets!