Long day's journey into night, and morning

Trip Start Sep 15, 2011
Trip End Oct 21, 2011

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Flag of Congo - The Dem. Repub.  ,
Thursday, September 22, 2011

Last night over dinner at the Botanika, I thought through the security situation in Bujumbura. In the past Moïse had been willing to take me to the airport late at night, so it seemed to me that the situation must be more dangerous now. Then it occurred to me that it might be safer to make the airport run earlier, and wait at the airport rather than the hotel, even though there is really nothing to do at the airport until one can check in and enter the departure lounge (and even then, there is simply a bar/café available.) I weighed the pros and cons and decided to go to the airport at 10:00 pm and hope to find a place to sit and read.

I asked the guard at the front door to call a taxi driver whom he knew, at least that's what he told me he would do, to drive me to the airport. I loaded in the luggage and we started out in a taxi that had certainly seen better days. It did the "shake rattle and roll" toward the airport, while I tried to communicate with the driver in both French and English with no luck. He only seemed to understand the word “airport” and then numbers, in thousands of francs….

I was happy to see one or two other cars on the road on the way out, as well as small army posts along the roadside. On arrival I found I wasn’t the only one who had the idea of coming early and waiting it out. Within minutes of my arriving we were a dozen sitting in the arrivals area, the only area open. It soon began raining and turned quite cool. The mosquitoes were out in force as well, so we pulled out the insect repellent – don’t leave home without it when there’s a risk of malaria.

I was already down to my last book; I’d already finished three on this trip – one on what effect heavy use of the Internet is doing to our thinking (scary stuff), a historical novel and an espionage novel by the late William F. Buckley. My remaining book was in French, and called L’homme sans gravité (The Man Without Gravity – gravity in the sense of seriousness) about how shallow, self-centered and pleasure-oriented we are becoming as a society. I had leafed through it in a bookstore in Paris a while back and it looked interesting. As I got into it, however it turned out to be much more psychoanalysis-oriented, Freud and Lacan, than I thought. So it was less interesting and potentially useful that I thought it would be. I was able to get through all the interesting parts during my wait to check in. I decided I’d have to see if I could pick up at least one good long book in Nairobi. Reading makes the time pass quickly and can useful as well.

While waiting, I also chatted with an older Danish couple who had been teaching modern small-farm techniques in rural Burundi. They have a small farm in Denmark, and so were able to pass along many useful bits of knowhow.  It was their 6th or 7th trip; they really enjoyed helping as they did. There was also a Sikh, recognizable by his turban, asleep on a bench. Others trickled in, both expats and locals, waiting to fly to Nairobi.

Kenya Airways began the check-in process three hours early, which was good, so we were able to reach the departure lounge and have a hot or cold beverage while we waited. That helped break the boredom. The flight boarded half an hour earlier than announced and we actually took off half an hour early, at 2:10 instead of 2:40 am!

The flight and arrival in Nairobi were uneventful. I dozed about half an hour on the flight. During the three-hour layover I was able to troll through the two bookshops in the departure area, and find a book I’ve been intending to read: Shake Hands with the Devil, by Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the UN peacekeepers during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.  I also had time for a tall cup of rather disappointing coffee at the Java Club in the airport. Starbucks it wasn’t.

We were able to start boarding about 07:00 and the flight to Kinshasa via Brazzaville took off on time at 07:35, which was 05:35 Congo time. It was an uncomfortable three-hour flight to Brazzaville, made so by the fellow sitting next to me. Many Africans don’t have the same personal space envelope expectations that we do in the West (expectations even vary from one Western Country to the next, for example Italians have much smaller space expectations than Americans – this has all been studied very scientifically). He was a small enough fellow, but seemed to have a few extra knees and elbows that kept showing up in my leg space, arms and even ribs. It wasn’t done on purpose, but it was frustrating and there wasn’t much I could do. How would I explain something like that in an understandable way to someone from such a different background who didn’t speak well any language that I did? I thought of several ways to try, but none seemed have much chance of success, so in the end just let it be and hoped to grow in patience.

To add to the frustration, he wanted to play the pen game. This is popular in many parts of Africa. It goes like this: don’t travel with a pen, then when it comes time to fill in the arrival card or any other required document, you don’t have a pen, and ask to borrow someone else’s (in this case mine). Since I always travel economy class, this happens fairly often to me on planes. It also often happens fairly often that the borrowers forget to give the pen back. No big deal to wealthy Westerners, they should be willing to share, right?. This was a favorite pen of mine (I should probably learn not to bring those), so I decided I wouldn’t let it slip my mind and realize later I no longer had a pen, as has happened more times than I can count. My row-mate really took his time filling in his card, taking a break now and again to stare out the window, check his phone and play a game or two on it. Finally he finished filling in his information, but rather than give the pen back, he moved smoothly to pass it to his friend in the row in front of us. I tapped him on the shoulder with what I hoped was a kindly smile and indicated I preferred to have it back. He handed it back slowly with a slightly pained yet cherubically innocent expression. I felt a small sense of triumph, which may indicate I have been traveling in Africa for too long ….

I dozed perhaps 90 minutes on the flight before we were awakened for the descent to Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo (my destination being the Democratic Republic of the Congo just across the Congo River). As we taxied in we could see that a new terminal, standing next to the old, was nearly finished. The tarmac surfaces in front of the terminals varied greatly in depth there was a large drop between them, and no way to taxi from one to the other, and each area has a separate entrance. Our pilot, either because he had not been guided properly or had missed a cue, taxied into the wrong side; the old terminal. I could see the ground crew in their reflective vests waiting for us on the other side, a quarter of a mile away. There was a long pause, during which I imagined the pilot asking for instructions, or complaining to someone. That was likely either frustrating or embarrassing, or both. Finally the ground staff decided to send the bus to the plane, not make the plane go to the bus.

After a 90 minute turn-around (instead of 45 as announced) we made the 12 minute hope across the Congo River to Kinshasa.  As we deplaned, once again instead of walking the 100 yards to the terminal we had to stand in the hot sun until a shuttle bus came; pack in and wait until it was fully loaded and then wait as the bus looped around to the arrival door. It would have been much quicker and easier to walk, but the bureaucracy won.

In the arrival area, my health card was checked to make sure I had a valid Yellow Fever vaccination, and my visa was duly stamped. Jacob had a protocol agent waiting for me to assist me through the baggage claim and customs check. Actually, probably because the agent was with me, there was no baggage check; customs didn’t ask to open my suitcase.

Jacob and Pascal were waiting outside and we walked the several hundred yards out of the airport compound. Authorities charge a fortune to park inside, so Jacob left the taxi outside, and we walked to it. It was a very old car; it also did the “shake rattle and roll” as we wove through traffic, stiflingly hot air blowing through the open windows, toward the city center.

About halfway to our destination, we ran out of gas. Taxi drivers often rent the cars they drive by the day. They pay a set price, and whatever they can make beyond that amount for the day, is what they take home. Any gas is left in the tank at the end of the day is forfeit, the owner siphons it out. So they often calculate very finely and drive with nearly empty tanks all the time. This driver had miscalculated.

The car shuddered and the engine stopped. Pushing the clutch in, the driver tried to coast as long as he could, attempting to get as far as the next street corner. We just must made it, and stopped before a makeshift filling station; that is a wooden stand with bottles and containers of various sizes, filled with gasoline, diesel, premix for two-stroke motor-scooters and so on. The driver ordered three liters; three quarters of a gallon of gas. Stepping to the car with three one liter jars under his arm, the attendant poured in the fuel and collected his money. Off we went for the rest of the trip to a different hotel I’m trying this time: the Hotel Invest. There is only one hotel in Kinshasa that shows up in the Western Hotel reservation system, the overpriced Grand Hotel Kinshasa. Everything is very expensive in Kinshasa, because of the heavy UN peacekeeping presence. When the blue helmets arrive prices skyrocket because the UN outbids everyone to obtain the choice real-estate, and goods and services. So I’ve been looking around for a less expensive one for several years – one that would still be reasonably safe, though I haven’t spent days and days looking – I have so little time here as it is. I decided to try the Invest, which is still expensive for the quality you get, but less so than the Grand. It has a decent reputation locally. We’ll see how it goes.

On arrival I put my bags in the single room I reserved, and Jacob and I had lunch in the restaurant. We talked about the local situation, the trials they’ve gone through recently due to the upset in our associations, as well as their plans for the upcoming festival and for the longer-term future. I gave greetings from others who asked their best be passed along, news of how things are going in the new association, of my trip and plans for the French-language region. We also planned for the next two days, so we could make the best use of my brief visit to the Congo. Jacob left mid-afternoon, so I could rest and get caught up on office work.

I worked through the afternoon until dinner: a small salad of raw vegetables and spaghetti with beef sauce. It’s early yet, but I only slept about 3 hours in the last 36, so I’ll go to bed early tonight and hopefully sleep in a while in the morning.
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bernardhongerlo on

Content que le voyage vers le Congo se soit déroulé sans trop de problèmes. Nous suivons toujours votre blog avec intérêt. Et nous pensons à tous nos frères dans ces régions qui sont bien moins fortunés que nous. Transmettez-leur bien notre chaleureux bonjour. Et bon sabbat à tous !

Glad your trip toward the Congo went relatively well. We always follow your blog with interest. And we think of our Brethren in those regions who are less fortunate than us. Convey to them our warm greetings. And a good sabbath to all.
Bernard Hongerloot

Emily Stoner on

You are not alone in Africa. We are there with you in spirit and in heart.
Praying for God's comforting presence daily.

TeriMez on

Thank you for taking the time to share your stories, Mr. Meeker! I couldn't help but laugh as I pictured you making claims to your pen. Please keep writing as it is so enjoyable and helpful to learn about our brethren in Africa and Europe.

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