East to Nairobi

Trip Start Sep 27, 2008
Trip End Oct 22, 2008

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Friday, October 3, 2008

Today I was up and checked out by 7:00 so I would be ready whenever Mr. Mukendi arrived to take to the airport. He had said around 7:00, but due to traffic he didn't arrive until nearly 8:00. He gave me a photocopy of the Congolese laws governing the formation and administration of "confessional associations to assist in planning how we'll move forward here. Then we loaded my suitcase into the trunk and started out. In spite of our later start, we still arrived at the airport by 9:00 which was not quite two hours ahead of the scheduled departure.
On the way to the airport we talked about many things: the different quarters of Kinshasa and their relative merits, church history, things to do on my next visit, differences between Congo and the West and so on. It was a pleasant and informative conversation.
There weren't too many people in the terminal, but checking in still took quite a bit of time for several reasons. The bureaucracy is the first. My papers were checked by various officials from different ministries (so they can keep tabs on each other) no less than seven times. The checking process is done entirely by hand. One Kenya Airways agent was working on a laptop in the darkened check-in area (very few of the fluorescent lights were still working), everything else was manual: filling in boarding passes, filling in the luggage tags for suitcases. There was only one passenger list which had to be handed back and forth between agents and only one felt-tipped pen for making luggage tags. It also had to be passed back and forth. Obviously the process was very slow.
After checking in I went through passport control and security, then walked outside and upstairs where the first class lounge used to be. It is no longer operating, but from the balcony, one has a very interesting view of the tarmac.  I wish I could take photos from that viewpoint, but the minute a camera was visible there would be a lot of very excited soldiers, policemen etc., heading my direction.

Several large UN planes painted white with black lettering stood off to the left. An old DC3 was rusting into oblivion on the right. And there were fifty or so soldiers and policemen visible in various places around the planes and the walkways painted on the concrete. In the distance, through the haze I could make out the Congo River. Not so far off, at the fence enclosing the airport perimeter I could see one large and one small military post.
I watched the passengers deplane from the Kenya Airways craft I would soon be boarding. They were corralled into the entry area as we had been four days ago. I felt an anticipatory sense of relief that I was leaving not arriving.
Back downstairs, we were allowed out of the terminal building onto a sort of porch where we went through additional security and were frisked by friendly Kenya Airways agents, the same ones who had checked us in earlier. Finally we were allowed to walk out to the plane. Before boarding we had to identify our suitcases which were lined up to be recognized.
Even though our seats were assigned, several passengers started sitting wherever they wanted, which led to a bit of confusion. One swarthy skinned fellow plopped down in the bulkhead seat in front of me and began a rather loud and animated conversation in Arabic on his cell phone. It continued until the preflight safety announcements that told us to turn off all electronic devices. He kept talking. A stewardess came by and told him he needed to turn off his phone. He kept talking. We taxied out toward the runway. He kept talking. It was surprising to me that the crew didn't do anything. The passengers around him looked a little nervous. I decided to push the call button, hoping someone would at least look in our direction and see him talking on the phone, but no one looked.
Air safety is a definite issue in this country; it has one of the highest fatal air crash incidents in the world. I wanted all the chances on our side. As we reached the runway and turned for takeoff, I finally leaned forward and asked him, please, to turn off his phone for the takeoff. He turned around and glared at me, but stopped his conversation. To show his displeasure he reclined his seat at far as he could, and a minute later held up his phone as if he were checking something, and allowing us all to see that his phone was still on. Such is life around here.
The flight to Nairobi lasted about four and half hours, the flight magazine noted the distance as right at 1500 miles (2300 km). The clouds below us were solid all the way across the equatorial jungle of the Congo. They broke when we reached Lake Victoria, so we could see the water and islands jutting up here and there. We had a clear view of the Great Rift Valley, which is always fascinating to see. Approaching Nairobi, we flew just to the south of the Ngong Hills, which figure prominently in the writing of Karen Blixen. At the base of the hills, I could see the town of Karen, named for her, and situated on land that had been part of her huge farm. She wrote all about it in Out of Africa which was made into a very good film. The book is very well written, and definitely worth the read.
Formalities went quickly in Nairobi; I paid my 20 dollars for a transit visa, and caught a taxi to the Fairview Hotel, where I will spend the night. The Fairview is going more and more upscale and they've just raised their prices again. It's not as good a deal as it used to be, but it's still one of the better hotel deals in Nairobi.

Tomorrow I'll need to be away from the hotel no later than 6:00 am to be on time for my 8:00 am flight to Bujumbura, Burundi.  
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