Trip Start Sep 15, 2011
26Trip End Oct 21, 2011
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I had set two alarms to make sure I’d wake up at 03:30 which I did. I finished repacking the suitcase and had everything ready to go at 04:00. Jacob arrived at 04:30 with a van, which I was very happy to see. I hadn’t asked him to do that, but I had thought about it later, so I was happy he’d thought of it. Nights are not very safe in and around Kinshasa, the road to the airport goes through several hot neighborhoods that are hostile to the central government and which "go off" at different time. There are also robberies of various kinds including stopping cars on the road. A van gives a heavier impression. It’s either a taxi, in which case the passengers are probably not going to have much on them, or if it isn’t a taxi it could be a professional vehicle in which case you might have a lot of men inside ready to defend themselves. In this case it was just Jacob and me, but one couldn’t readily see that from outside. It was old, like all vehicles on the road seem to be, and the engine threatened to stop every time we had to slow down. Some sections of street have been recently redone and are quite good, some are still dirt, and after the heavy downpour last night, they were mud pits that we had to run across at some speed to avoid bogging down.
The night air was heavy with humidity, and smoke from fires. There were rarely any working street lights once away from the center of Kigali, so the road was only dimly lit by the stabbing of headlights that swung wildly around as the few drivers on the road at that hour dodged potholes. Nighttime African cities sometimes remind me of a sort of post-Apocalyptic movie.
Finally arrived at the airport, we paid the exorbitant fee to park inside; too risky to park outside the walls and walk in. Jacob hired a “protocol” a fellow who knows the ins and outs of the airport and would carry the suitcase and guide me through the bureaucratic labyrinth, for a fee. First we went in a door on the right of the terminal and down a corridor to the window where I needed to pay the $50 departure tax. Then we had to go back outside again, and reenter the terminal through a door on the left. That’s where I said goodbye to Jacob and thanked him for accompanying me to the airport. He left for home
As the protocol and I we were on the way in the terminal door, a uniformed officer shouted at us to halt. He called the protocol over and spoke angrily, nodding his head toward me from time to time. He was threatening to hold me on a “security concern” if we didn’t give him his “motivation” as bribes are sometimes called. He could hold me up long enough to insure I missed my flight, and then realize there was no real problem. He had several other uniformed men with him looking intimidating, and this appeared to be a well-rehearsed shake down. I don’t acquiesce to bribes or shakedowns if I can help it, and feel I can usually tell if the situation is serious or not. This one seemed serious; at night when they’re bolder, a team working with him, Jacob not allowed in the airport, and no other white faces around that might intervene to help me or even witness the events. He got his ten dollars.
Inside the terminal, the security team had me open my suitcase and went through it very thoroughly, moving my clothes around, opening my toiletry bag and so on. Then I could advance to the immigration desk, where I handed over my passport and ticket. After thumbing through my thick passport, one officer asked “You are going to Lomé?” “Yes” I replied. “Where is your visa?” he asked. They are not supposed to let people on flights to countries demanding a visa if there is no visa in the passport. Since there was no valid Togolese visa, he could hit me for some motivation to let me continue to check in. “I can get one at the airport on arrival” I told him confidently and with a smile. That was true, and he knew it, but he hadn’t been sure I did. He grunted and let me pass.
Before going to the check-in counter, airline staff went through my suitcase and my carryon, again in great detail. I mentioned that they had just been checked right over there – just a few feet away. “The airline doesn’t trust the security agents” he said. I couldn’t really fault that logic.
I finally was allowed to check in at the counter. I had purchased tickets on Ethiopian Airlines, a pretty solid carrier, but they code share with other airlines and this flight would be operated by a new African airline based in Lomé, called ASky or AfricanSky. It’s only a year old, so I was curious to see how it would be run.
After check in, the protocol took the exit form and filled it in with information from my passport. Then he handed the packet to me and took me to the actual emigration area. I gave him his tip and turned to the agent at the door. “You didn’t fill in your card completely” he told me. The Protocol hadn’t done his job completely. I finished filling it in, and was allowed to pass. Things went quickly at the desk. The agent asked my profession, which was already written on the form in his hands. He asked cheerily how my stay had been in wonderful Congo. He spoke as if I were leaving Tahiti. I smiled and told him my stay had gone well.
Finally nearing the departure lounge, I had to go through security one more time; x-ray machine, suitcase search, wand. The male agent introduced me to two female against sitting behind the machine. “This is Miss Agatha”, I recall him saying. “Enchanté” I replied. “She has not been eating well”, he went on. “She is not well paid.” “I’m very sorry to hear that” I said with a smile, "I hope things will improve for you all soon." They could have hassled me, that was the implied threat, but they couldn’t even be bothered to do that. They didn’t stand up, just stopped smiling and watched me walk away.
By this time it was light enough outside to see. A heavy tropical rain was falling on the tarmac. As usual at this airport there were all kinds of different planes parked in a seemingly haphazard manner all over the tarmac. There are 767s, old Soviet era cargo planes, smaller business jets, even a DC3 off to one side. It’s quite fascinating.
Around 07:00 when it was time to board we stepped outside and had to let another set of ground staff rifle through our carryon bags one more time, the fourth by my count. Then we boarded the bus that took us out to the ASky 767. The flight left on time, and was well conducted. The pilot had, I believe, a German or Dutch accent. We flew 90 minutes to Libreville in Gabon. After a 45 minute turn-around we flew another 90 minutes or so to Lagos, Nigeria. I knew that airport well, many stories to tell from the few years I covered Nigeria for the Church. That was a dangerous chaotic time in Nigeria’s history, and it was not comfortable traveling there, a little like the Congo now. Finally after another 45 minutes on the ground and a passenger swap we took off again for Lomé where we arrived about 12:00, which was 13:00 in Kinshasa.
I handed over my 15,000 francs ($30 – it would cost $100 or more in Washington DC) and waited to get my visa, which came quickly. Then I wheeled my suitcase to the entry security checkpoint and ran everything through an x-ray machine. Finally out in the entry hall, I say Guy Ahialegbedzi and Pierre Kloutsé waiting for me. We gave each other hugs and exchanged greetings as we walked out to the parking lot to Guy’s car.
It will be delightful to go to bed early tonight and not have to get up early tomorrow
My Review Of The Place I Stayed