To the Congo
Trip Start Mar 26, 2012
32Trip End Apr 29, 2012
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Where I stayed
Guy arrived at 8:30 to help me run some errands. I needed to find a bolt replacement for my camera tripod, and change some money to settle accounts at the hotel before heading to the airport. We drove downtown first, found a place to park and walked through the bustling streets to find a hardware shop. The first one we tried had the bolt and nut I needed but would only sell me a bag of 99 of them. So we walked farther.
Finally we came to one called Établissement Américain (the American Business). There was a Chinese fellow sitting on a stool our front, that’s often what shop owners do. There was a crush of people coming and going, buying picks and handles, jacks, tools, and many other metallic items. Guy handed over my nut and bolt combo and asked in Ewe to a duplicate set. The attendant disappeared in the back for several minutes to try the varieties in their stock. He came back with a pair that had the same threads that I needed. To prevent theft, the employee who fills out the sales slip is not the same one who collects the money. When we went to the slip-filler-outer and said we wanted to buy "this set," the one the sales fellow had just brought us, the man looked at it and told us “we don’t have any of those.” They don’t normally sell just one piece at a time and, I suppose he didn’t want to bother. Guy told him this was actually their set and we wanted to pay for it. He looked confused. So we walked over a manager behind a counter next to the cash box and Guy said, something like “this should cover it” handing him a coin. He nodded and we walked out.
Next stop was the bank, where I need to change a few hundred Euros. I had to first fill out a form, and then have my passport photocopied, then wait in line. The process took half an hour, but at least the bank was air conditioned.
My two errands done we went back to the hotel where I worked a few more hours before it was time to head the airport. Before Guy arrived, as I was paying the bill, I chatted with the owner, a Frenchman who has been in Africa for 18 years, a little longer than I’ve been making visits here. We talked about the hotel situation in Lomé and other African cities, the troubles in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Congo among others, and he talked about his plans. As he gets older it’s more of an effort to fight the African inertia and keep the business going.
Guy arrived about then and we headed to the airport where I went through the usual security hoops. My passport and Togolese visa were checked at the door, before I could enter. I had to put my bags through a security scanner and walk through a metal detector. In the line to check in, my passport and the Congolese visa were checked. After check in, (where, I was happy to see that ASky doesn’t engage in petty hassles about carryon weights), I headed to immigration where my passport and visa were checked and stamped. Before I could go through security there were two more uniformed officials who checked my passport and visa. In these countries, everybody is supposed to watch everybody else and keep the powers that be informed.
As my carryon and went through the scanner/ detectors, the officer looked at my passport again. “Christopher” he said with a smile. “My middle name” I replied. “You know we work hard and we need something to cool our throats” he said. I said with an innocent smile, “I think water is best for that.” He let me pass.
The departure lounge was full to overflowing, several flights were going and near the same departure times. As I stood waiting, I noticed a unit of Togolese soldiers in new uniforms standing on the tarmac waiting for something. I assumed they were an honor guard for somebody important. Shortly thereafter an all-white UN marked 737 landed, and after a few minutes deplaned a similar unit in older uniforms. They appeared to be returning from a peace-keeping mission somewhere, and those waiting were going to replace them. Officers gave speeches to both groups standing at attention near the terminal and then one group walked to the plane and the other reentered Togolese life.
We finally boarded our 737, and found it to be completely full. I had a middle seat, my least favorite and was seated between two men, one pretty large, so we maneuvered for space through the 45 minutes flight to Lagos, Nigeria. There were several Americans on the flight, missionaries I guessed from the way they dressed and acted. One family had a boy of about 11 and a girl of 16 or so.
Once on the ground, my seatmates left to be replaced by a man and a woman. We took off again, this time for Libreville in Gabon, 90 minutes away. We had a small meal on the flight. After 30 minutes on the ground in Libreville we took off for Kinshasa, about 75 minutes away, landing at 8:00 pm, when the night was truly dark. The family got off in Kinshasa. I thought about what an interesting experience it would be to grow up in modern Congo. I also felt concern for them.
Formalities went quickly and I had my suitcase out of the departure area in good time. No one was there. I called Justin on the phone. “They waited for you already” he said “they were at the airport at noon.” I told him my flight had just landed. I will call the man who waited for you, he will come right away.” I checked my e-mail record on my Blackberry. I had sent them the correct flight time and received a confirmation e-mail. I’ll find out what happened tomorrow. I called back after a few minutes. Justin said, “I can’t reach him; I’m coming myself right away.” We hung up. The last of the passengers tricked out. Baggage boys asked if I needed help; a taxi perhaps. Kinshasa is a city where you don’t want to go alone with people you don’t know, especially with suitcases and a computer bag that in the local culture scream “money!”
I replied that someone was coming for me, I would wait. One of them suggested I wait farther out in the parking lot, but it was better to wait in a very visible and well-lit spot. The baggage boys told me in broken French: “there is very bad traffic jam today – all day – very bad.” A soldier came buy carrying two AK-47s. He asked how I was doing, checking me out. I replied that I was fine and asked firmly how he was. He said “fine” and moved on. An official offered to take me to a place where I could sit down and still use my phone; I replied that I preferred to wait where I was
Our’s had been the last flight of the day, so workers were completing their final tasks, security people were leaving. The vehicles in the lot thinned out and some lights were shut off. I told myself that they wouldn’t shut off all the lights. I really didn’t want to end up sitting in the dark on my suitcase in the airport parking lot in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The soldier came by again and made a gesture of smoking a cigarette, I told him I didn’t smoke. One baggage handler decided to stay with me and I appreciated it; two is better than one. We talked about the situation in Congo in general and in Kinshasa in particular. The traffic jam, it turns out, is because the government is repairing roads and sprucing up the city for a “francophonie” in the autumn. The “francophonie” is a periodic gathering of heads of French-speaking states to celebrate the fact that they speak French. It is heavily subsidized by France which is concerned its beautiful language is diminishing in its world standing and losing out to English. I said “they will spend a lot of money on that.” He picked up my thought: “yes, while so many people are living in misery.”
Finally Justin did arrive. It was about 90 minutes after landing and I was very happy to see him. But the day’s adventure was not over. We carried my bags out of the parking lot, passed the soldiers guarding the gate, who watched us intently as we passed, and out to the road that leads to Kinshasa. I asked Justin what kind of vehicle he had found. He said he came on a motor-cycle taxi and that we would have to organize something here. Not what I was hoping to hear. He paid the baggage man who left for the night.
After a few minutes a “transport en commun” public transport (small van) stopped. Justin said we would take it. The driver cleared the front seat next to him for me and my camera bag. My suitcase went right behind me, and Justin kept my laptop back on his lap. The van was ancient and dirty with cracked windows, screeching springs and dead shock absorbers. The headlights were extremely dim, as we plowed through clouds of dust and heavy diesel fumes. Thus, we lurched toward Kinshasa. It wasn’t hard to figure that the excited Lingala conversations behind centered on the unusual passenger up front. At one point Justin got into what sounded like a heated arguments. I caught the words “20 dollars” and “10 Francs” and various other amounts going back and forth. They were discussing something related to our fare. Justin was angry they were trying to charge us an exorbitant price because of our situation and because we could pay it. The taxi made a “scheduled” stopped and everyone got out.
There we stood on the side of the rubbly road in a dimly lit, populous section of town that I knew had a dicey reputation for violence. People were staring. “Keep a good hold on your carryon” Justin told me as he looked for more transport. I asked why we couldn’t negotiate a price with the van to take us right to the hotel. “We can, but they want 20 dollars!” he was chagrined. Under the circumstances it was an easy choice to make. We got back in and the driver got his crew together. We rumbled off once again. We came to a section of road that was so bad it had traffic snarled completely, drivers shut off their motors as they waited to move forward. I really wanted to shoot video of it, but decided it was best to leave everything of value out of site.
Trucks vans and cars jockeyed for position passing within inches of each other, as we slowly moved through the mangled road like sand through an hourglass. Dust whirled in the windows and up through the floorboards. Finally, at around 10:30 pm we arrived at the Hotel Invest, where I said a silent prayer of thanks. I paid the driver who was, of course elated with the windfall. After checking in and arranging schedules with Justin, I was able to get some bottled water just before the restaurant close for the night.
It’s sometimes hard to believe that so much, and such widely varied experiences, can happen in one day.