Reviewed by Mark D. Walker
I’m always attracted to any adventure delving into the “heart of darkness” in Africa. And in this case, a book inspired by Conrad’s epic trip in 1890 down the Congo River on a steamer after being appointed by a Belgian trading company. This story came to mind while floating down the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, where the dense tropical forest came up to the river’s edges, and one could hear different languages on shore (mostly Q’eqchí).
But Tayler’s travel adventure is on an entirely different level as he follows the Congo River on a barge for 1,100 of the river’s 2,900 total miles in a country where over 220 languages are spoken. The width of the river ranges from five to seven miles. The barge is steaming with deckhands, merchants, prostitutes, spiritual followers, fishermen, and children.
He was also planning the descent in a native, dugout canoe (pirogue), which hadn’t been attempted since Stanley did it. Henry Morton Stanley coined the term “Dark Continent of Africa” around 1876 as he led an expedition that King Leopold I of Belgium set to “prove that the Congo basin was rich enough to repay exploitation.”
This colonial past explains some of the mistrust of foreigners, especially white foreigners, which Tayler had to deal with. This passage from the Lonely Planet provides an overview of the conditions the author would encounter on his adventure:
Because of the ongoing chaos in Zaire…security is a significant problem throughout the country…Regarding danger, Kinshasa is unrivaled in Central Africa… groups with knives and guns have attacked travelers in broad daylight, so even walking around Kinshasa during the daytime poses serious risk…Foreigners have been dragged at gunpoint from their cars at major intersections and murdered…
And yet the author was undaunted, “The Congo River filled my dreams and flowed through my waking hours, and my expedition took on a fated aspect.” However, these dangers did convince him that before getting in a pirogue, he’d take a barge from Kinshasa upriver to Kisangani. This made perfect sense, considering the river is 15 miles wide at Kinshasa. I’d venture to guess that the author’s experience as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer bolstered his willingness to enter this journey where lesser travelers would have feared to tread.
And yet, the author tells how overwhelmed he was by the abject poverty of Kinshasa:
…But the smoke of burning garbage floated under the palms; the sun was flooding down razor-sharp, bleaching away colors and lending the city the incinerated look of Hiroshima after the blast. Dust, decay, crazed men in uniforms, starvelings, and cripple – it all hit me, and I was nearly broke. I felt nausea rising within me; pity and revulsion, and shock swamped me and kept at bay the fear I had thought I would feel. Although I had expected to see poverty, I had no idea it would upset me so much viscerally…
The real adventure doesn’t begin until halfway through the book, “Alone on the River,” when the author sets out in a pirogue with only one local “guide,” Desi…. As we slipped away from the bank, the bow of our pirogue cut a pale gray V in the indigo river. Sweat ran down my eyes, soaked through my shirt, and blanched into expanding blotches on the thighs of my cotton trousers.” This is how the 1,100-mile journey down the Congo to Kinshasa would begin.
I empathized with the author based on my time in Sierra Leone, West Africa, when they stopped one evening to rest, “The drums beat on, becoming muffled, and then a chanting began, a haunting dirge, and then there were shouts. It unsettled me, and I switched around in the tent to face the river through my net door. There was no moon, only a blackness filled with drums and chants and the high-voltage buzz of mosquitoes that screamed and whined thick as fog where my breath exited the gauze….”
When they stopped in a city, the author was expected to check in with someone from the country’s secret police, “SNIP.” “In Zaire, most problems that didn’t crawl, bite, sting, or cause dysentery had to do with the police or military.” Tayler says, “The whole Zairean government had devolved into a sham institution, a façade of buildings with brass placards, doors with nameplates, people with titles, and nothing behind them; it builds nothing, performed no services, represented no one. It probably no longer paid the pettifogging SNIP officer sitting in front of me his salary.” Making corruption and bribery a way of life.
Eventually, intrigue with his assistant and a local soldier the author hired for protection for a section where the local population was known to kill any whites who turned up, plus illness took its toll, “Later, after we returned to the hotel, I fell ill in the debilitating heat of the late afternoon. Tormented by nausea, my intestines tightening into knots, I rolled from side to side on the lumpy mattress in my green room, weak and clammy, listening to the lizards crawl up the walls and the parrots squawking outside my window….”
Finally, the author would have to abandon his quest, with 470 miles to go. At this point, this adventure entered into what I’d referred to in my latest book, My Saddest Pleasures, those trips which held great expectations, but would fail to the point that all involved were in dire straits. The author’s helper, Desi, distracted him with Christian chants and hymns. His health deteriorated to the point that he might not make it. These are the journeys we remember the most, and they always include a certain level of regret:
I did not know what to say. I felt I was to blame for having undertaken this trip, which now seemed like it could cost the life of this poor fellow, or leave him more debilitated than ever, which would ruin the lives of a dozen other people, given his position of breadwinner for an extended family, in all my preparations I had never imagined that it would be my guide whose health would fail and not my own. But an isolating fear settled like a stone on my heart, isolating because, even in the company of others, we face death alone…
Tayler would come to grips with his guilt in the final paragraph of his epilogue:
The best we can do is exorcise our demons through action, for time will always be short, and there is always much to be learned from living – even when the lessons prove to be deeply painful.
“Tayler is a skilled craftsman who could become a significant new voice in travel literature. Compelling and deeply unsettling reading.”-Booklist
Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 1988-90; PC/Staff Poland 1992; Uzbekistan 1992-93). He is a PCV writer who never came home but has kept writing. He was the 2001 Best Travel Writing winner for Peace Corps Worldwide. He is the author of such travel books as Siberian Dawn and Facing the Congo and has published numerous articles in The Atlantic, Spin, Harper’s, and Conde´ Nast Traveler.
Tayler lives in Russia and, in the current issue of The Atlantic, has a piece on a remote archipelago of Russia, one of the country’s holiest places, the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral. It is located on the largest Solovetsky Islands and “amid the gale-lashed White Sea, just outside the Arctic Circle,” Jeff writes. Tayler lives in Moscow, and Solovki is 650 miles away by plane. (And you thought it was a long way to your site!)
Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. His memoir, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, his first book, was followed by My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road.
He’s a contributing writer for The Authors Show, Revue Magazine, Literary Traveler, and the Wanderlust Journal. His “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why” is part of the Arizona Authors Association Newsletter. One of his 28 articles was awarded a “Bronze” by the Solas Literary Award for Best Travel Writing. He founded Million Mile Walker LLC in 2016. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. He can be found at www.MillionMileWalker.com