Travel to the Congo
Trip Start Mar 14, 2013
20Trip End Apr 05, 2013
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Pierre came to the hotel at 11:00. I had already settled accounts, so I was ready to go. We drove through the dust and exhaust fumes, through buzzing throngs of motorcycle taxis darting about like giant insects on a mission.
At the airport, Pierre and I shook hands and wished each other well, and I stood in my first line of the day. Before entering the airport in Lomé, one or two officials must check your ticket, your passport and your visa. Then one can enter the airport, and enter the next line of people. They are waiting to put their luggage through a scanner, and to pass through a metal detector, and probably, to be wanded.
Then one may enter the third line, just before the check in counter. Airline employees must first check tickets or itineraries and visas for destinations. Allowed to pass, you are finally able to check in, receive a boarding pass, and a claim check for a suitcase. Next one must fill out a departure card with personal information (address, date of birth, passport number), how long one stayed in country and where. This card is then taken to a fifth line where it is checked, passports scanned and stamped and boarding passes are stamped as well, showing that you have permission to leave the country. Next up is another security check. Laptops and electronics out, belts off etc., and everything goes through a scanner again, as you again walk through a metal detector.
After running this gauntlet, I finally entered the small departure area – about 100 feet by 60 feet which is all there is for the whole airport. I headed for my favorite seat, at the confluence of two large refrigerator sized air conditioners. The two streams of cool air they blow out intersect at a few chairs toward the back and provide a pleasant temperature in which to wait. I pulled out my third book of the trip: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. I had started it a year ago, but since I bought it in hardback when it first came out I hadn't wanted to travel with it: to heavy. But my mother recently finished it and said the ending was worth it. So I brought it this trip and would finish it today. I discovered later that it would have been better to finish the book in private rather than in public. I couldn’t read the end without a few tears running down my cheeks.
I calculated about when a snack would be served on the flight and decided that I’d better have a sandwich at the airport. After an hour we were called to board. We loaded into a bus and were driven out to the plane, a 737 – that was good. ASky used lots of little puddle-jumpers as well and I don’t much care to fly on those. I had an aisle seat which was also good.
We left on schedule flew about 40 minutes to Lagos, Nigeria. After deplaning passengers and letting a few more on, we flew on to Libreville, Gabon, where we went through the same process once again. As we flew the last hour and a quarter to Kinshasa, I could see a beautiful tropical sunset through dark black clouds, the contrast was striking.
We arrived in Kinshasa in the dark, and 40 minutes early. They have spruced up some part of the airport, including the arrival area, which sorely needed. Prior to this remodeling, I don’t think anything had changed since the 1970s. After having my passport, visa, and yellow fever card checked, I was able to enter baggage claim.
As I waited for my suitcase a man came up to me wearing a T-shirt sporting a US flag. "Do you need any help?" he asked. I told him I didn’t. “Do you need a taxi, I can organize one for you” he continued. I told him I didn’t need any help, that I had friends coming, and thanked him. “I’m with assistance.” He said. It told him that was very nice. I recognized the drill, he wanted me to pay him to do something, almost anything. “How many suitcases do you have?” He asked. I looked him in the eye and said firmly that I would take care of it and I didn’t need any help. He finally got the hint and walked off in search of other quarry. But soon after, he was replaced by a uniformed baggage handler who walked up behind me and spoke to me in English, asking if I needed help with my luggage. When I said no, he left right away.
After picking up my suitcase and clearing customs (I didn’t have to open my luggage), I walked outside. Immediately two men walked up to me and ask me if I needed a taxi. I said that I had friends coming. I pulled out my cell phone and began calling Justin, but the system was encumbered and calls wouldn’t go through. The two men stood right next to me, well within my personal space envelope, staring at me, watching every move I made. It would have been intimidating if I hadn’t been through it before. One must always be alert, but these men weren’t contemplating anything criminal just a way to wheedle some money out of me voluntarily.
After 15 minutes under careful scrutiny, Justin and Victor walked up and we started toward the taxi they had come in. One of the men who had been watching me tried to take over pushing the luggage cart, but I persisted. We finally reached a point where the luggage cart couldn’t continue, so Victor picked up the suitcase, I took my computer backpack and Justin tok the carryon bag and we walked off. The other fellow motioned to me with the local expression for “you owe me something”: extend your hand palm down, then roll it over palm up with a small flourish, while wearing a pained and slightly indignant expression on your face. We ignored him, as he himself would do to anyone who tried something like that on him. He yelled after us that it cost 500 francs to use the luggage cart. Justin and Victor laughed, since we all knew it wasn’t true.
As we left the parking lot, the driver had to pay the 1000 franc fee (about 2 dollars). He handed the soldier a bill, who without looking at it complained that the driver hadn’t paid enough. “It costs 1000 francs to park here” he said. The driver told him he had given him 1000 francs. The soldier looked down and was startled to see that he was indeed holding a 1000 franc note. Apparently everyone tries to get away with only giving a 500 franc note. He let us pass.
We started out toward Kinshasa, and I noticed right away that the road had been redone. With the exception of some bridges and a few patches still undergoing work, the trip in is now a good road. I used to always wish for a 4WD when coming into town, but things have improved remarkably, and this cut travel time by half.
We arrived at the hotel Invest where I checked in and took my luggage to my room. I took out the booklets I had brought for them and handed them over. They said they needed more than what I had brought. I said more would come but I only had room for so many in my suitcase.
We discussed how we would use the time of my visit and agreed to meet tomorrow at 10:00 to start our work together.
I had a quick bite of dinner, and called my wife on Skype to let her know I arrived safely and catch up on our news.
I should sleep well tonight.