Life in Congo 6: Vacation!

I’ve just returned from a 4-day vacation in the Republic of Congo, which is not to be confused with the more southerly Democratic Republic of Congo, where I live. It was adventurous and wonderful, even by first-world standards, but recent news of the ferry disaster NE of Kinshasa on Mai-Ndombe lake, drowning over 160, the freight train wreck on the Kinshasa-Matadi line which killed everyone on board, and the crash of the Antonov-26 in Boende, killing 22 (all within three days) more gives a sobering insight to what can happen when you travel in the heart of third-world Africa. I’m happy to say in my own journey there were no dangerous incidents or near-misses, although the potential always exists when you take off on a trek with a backpack and your wits, in a region known for its ruthlessness, its lack of organization, incomplete information and disregard for safety.

The trip had an auspicious beginning. Lauren and I woke up Thursday morning an hour before we were to leave and realized that we had not made the most basic arrangement for our trip: how to get from our compound to the ferry terminal in Kinshasa. The travel agencies here make a lucrative income shuttling their clients to the airport and walking them through the check-in process for about $50 a person. Not because it’s necessary, but because they can. And because there is no public transport infrastructure, the airport procedures are poorly-defined and rife with corruption, and the people are willing to be pampered and taken care of for a price. On this trip, however, we had decided to travel without assistance and rely as little as possible on the catering and pampering services given to the mun’dalis, but instead to find our own way and experience travel ‘African style’ as much as possible. We had only a day-pack and our visas. Travel light, travel flexibly, figure it out as we go. And first of all, we needed to figure out how to get to the ferry crossing.

We called and arranged to have our boss drive us to the terminal. He had made the journey to Brazzaville two years ago, and enjoyed telling us on the drive in how impossible it was to do, how inconvenient and unmanageable the bureaucracy was, and how the costs were astronomical to take the high-speed boat across. We were trying to block out his warnings when we arrived at ‘the Beach’, which is the Congolese ferry port in downtown Kinshasa.

The Beach is located in the heart of the defunct and rotted out commercial port, with thousands of half-sunken hulks of large cargo vessels choking the shoreline, and rusted cranes hanging overhead like bare, dead trees, ready to drop broken branches on the heads of the inattentive. The guard acknowledged our pseudo-diplomatic ‘IT’ license plates and waved us through the first barrier, and the next guard followed suit and waved us through the next razor-wire topped fence. We knew we had already compromised our native-travel ideology, but we also knew enough to take advantage of small favors when they present themselves. Some amount of preferential treatment is unavoidable. And desirable.

Our boss pulled up into the parking lot, we got out with our bags, and with a wave and a malicious grin he drove off. For a moment, we stood absorbing the surroundings. The terminal building was a large, unpainted cinderblock structure with a cratered parking lot, surrounded by two 10-foot steel fences topped with razor wire. There were guards along the critical points in the fence, and the parking lot was crammed with hundreds of Congolese milling about like ants. Money-changers were making their deals, young men with huge loads on their heads were sweating in the 100-degree heat, shouting and jostling for position in the lines for boarding the ferry, colorful women were strolling around like fashion models, followed by men carrying their bags or cases. Goats and chicken heads were peeking out of burlap bags, kids peered out from behind colorful skirts, and rolls of car tires were stacked behind a huge truck, being ferried to the terminal building by sweating porters. As we were looking at the melee, we were suddenly swamped by ‘facilitateurs’ who wanted to make our travel arrangements for us, for a price. We had been warned that, as whites, it was almost impossible to make your own ferry arrangements (it would be perceived like a person going into the kitchen of a restaurant and asking to make their own food), so we found a facilitateur whose name had been given to us, handed him our passports and $20 each, and with a quick instruction that we wanted seats on the safer “VIP Express ferry”, he ushered us into a small room to wait and see what would happen, and rushed off. It was nervy, watching someone you don’t even know walking off with your passport, but eventually he returned with 4 small tickets for the ‘Canot Rapide’ ferry. We asked why he had not given us tickets on the VIP, and he explained that the Canot Rapide made more crossings and was leaving sooner, for the same price. We had some notes from a friend who had made the crossing before, and in the bottom of his notes, he mentioned “If you take the Canot Rapide, the facilitateur will try to get you to ‘buy the boat’. Don’t do it”, so it was no surprise when the facilitateur explained to us that the ferry would only go when it had ten passengers, and as there were currently only nine, would we be willing to pitch in and pay for the empty seat so that we could go sooner? We declined, and our facilitateur shrugged and went on his way, leaving us sitting without our passports to sweat for another half hour. Another facilitateur instantly materialized, shouting that we should have taken the VIP ferry, how it was a better boat, and how it would be there soon instead of the open-ended Canot Rapide, and how it was not too late to change our tickets. We sensed cut-throat Congolese commercialism in action, and sat tight, despite his fanatic and frantic efforts to get us to change our tickets.

Eventually, our facilitateur returned, beaming, and said he had found another passenger so we could go now. We asked about our passports, but he ignored us and dove into the crowd. We followed him to the dock, shouldering aside pushy moneychangers and other passengers, and made our way to the gangplank where a soldier and a policeman had a checklist of names and a fistful of passports, our own on top. We sensed a bribe coming. He looked in our faces, looked at the manifest, looked in our faces again, and asked who we worked for. I showed him my fake embassy ID and said ‘L’Embassie d’Amerique”, and he handed back our passports and waved us through. We walked down to the end of the dock, wondering where the ferry was. Then we saw it: it was a watrous version of a Congolese taxi (which is inevitably a 1972 Volkswagen bus with a bailing-wire engine, and a seating capacity of about 35 people). This was an old six passenger waterskiing speedboat, held together with duct-tape and fiberglass, with a young wild-eyed Congolese man at the wheel and an old, dilapidated 50 HP Mercury outboard on the stern, tied on with odd lengths of rope, belching blue and black smoke. There were already 8 people in it, sitting two to a seat, and the four of us were handed life jackets and crammed in also. Every inch of interior space had someone sitting in it, and the boat looked like it could barely float, let alone navigate the currents and debris of the 2-mile crossing to Brazzaville. Off to the right, the ‘VIP express’ ferry was pulling into port: a 40-foot long, two-level yacht with covered deck seating and comfortable chairs. As we looked wistfully at the other boat, we were pushed off, the Merc roared to life, and the hopelessly overloaded Canot Rapid rocketed away from shore. My secret hope, as I clutched the cheap lifejacket I was given, was when it sank, it would be close enough to the DRC shore so I could make it back safely before getting swept into the rapids below.

To my surprise, the engine turned out to be more of a homemade hotrod than a duct-tape clunker, and the boat skimmed easily over the surface. The driver deftly dodged the massive reed mats that drifted down from the jungle upstream, and used the tricky river currents to guide us towards the Brazzaville shore. After a short 7-minute ride (they don’t call it the Canot Rapide for nothing), we pulled up against the dock and the boat was tied up fore and aft. I was just starting to stand up, sighing and commenting to my partners about what a sturdy little craft this was when the handrail came off in my hand. With a sharp glance at the sheepish captain, I disembarked.

We were immediately met by a policeman with a passenger manifest who took everyone’s passports, and another facilitateur met us and herded us off to the immigration desk, a few hundred meters up the road. A second facilitateur retrieved our passports from the policeman, and sped past us in a car, waving our passports out the window. My initial instinct would have been to race after the car, but our facilitateur assured us that they would be waiting for us at the immigration desk, which they were. It was only a matter of a few minutes to fill in some forms, get our visas stamped, pay some ‘appreciation money’ to the facilitateurs, the guard and the immigrations people, and then we were in a taxi headed into Brazzaville, a city described in an article last year in a leading US magazine as “the worst city on the Planet to live in or visit for any length of time.”

Our initial impression was that it was a damned sight nicer a place than Kinshasa! There were sidewalk cafes, restaurants, good roads and walkways, interesting architecture, grocery stores, and very few homeless street people. Several building bore the scars of the recent wars; some with artillery holes several floors up, and others with clusters of machine-gun scars at street level, but most buildings were newly painted and in repair.

Our taxi driver took us on a quick tour of town, and then drove us to ‘le Rapide’, an outdoor café on the west end of town right on the shore of the Congo River. We ordered some local beers, and as we sat drinking them in the cool shade, we could look right across the river at our own backyards on the DRC side. The hill where the school was rose up directly across form us, and we could see the radio tower that sits outside our front gate. However, on the DRC side, access to the river is strictly forbidden, and we found it immensely pleasurable to sit with the sound of the whitewater at our feet, gazing at the Kinshasa skyline. Suddenly, a small head bobbed up in the water ahead of us, and a local boy smiled and waved moments before he washed into the giant wave in front of us. A second later, he floated up in the tailrace, swam toward shore, and dragged himself out on a rock. Then he ran back upstream and jumped back in. Considering that there are crocodiles and Goliath tigerfish in these waters, and that the rapid he was swimming was easily a class 8 on the Grand Canyon scale, I was most impressed with his bravery and joie de vivre. We gave him some appreciation money, which was, of course, his intention all along, then headed off to the airport.

The Brazzaville airport is another deep African airport, made of cinderblocks, and inefficient and hot. We waited in line, passed our tickets to the disinterested agent, were given our boarding passes (open boarding- no seat reservations) and headed off to the barren waiting room. We were intercepted by a woman selling ‘tax stamps’ for 1000 francs, and were forced to contribute to god-knows-what in exchange for a tiny stamp on our ticket envelope. Since 1000 franks is only $1.20, we didn’t put up any argument and we were quite used to these mysterious contributions anyway.

The flight was on time, and our plane was an old 737. From the outside, it looked pretty well maintained, and fortunately the interior was not so bad either. However, I know my minimal standards for airplanes has changed during my time overseas, and most US passengers would have been horrified by the occasional broken overhead compartment, the nonworking chairs, the steamy air-conditioning, or the nauseating sticky smell of the cleaning agent. But we were relieved that it was not a prop plane or an Antonov, and gleefully took our seats for the 45 minute flight to the coast.

The flight over Congo was interesting, as the clouds were broken and we could see clearly. Almost immediately out of Brazzaville, the dense rainforest I expected to see in DRC closed in and obscured the ground. There were occasional mud roads, which looked impassible even from our height, and the rolling hills were covered with groves of trees of all types. A few villages had cleared areas for themselves, but for the most part it was easy to see how this area still remained a rebel stronghold in the Congolese war that still flares up in the region, inaccessible to the government army. Suddenly, the plane banked very steeply to the left, and the town of Pointe Noire appeared, clustered against the shore of the Atlantic coast. We dropped out of the sky like a bomb, and made a fast but perfect landing on the pavement of the Pointe Noire airport, safely at our beach destination only 5 hours after leaving the claustrophobic craziness of Kinshasa.

Pointe Noire is a sprawling beach town, its marginal economy fueled by a collection of offshore oil derricks and their associated support mechanisms on land. During more peaceful times, it was a thriving resort town, with luxurious beachfront hotels, excellent restaurants, crystal white sands and lots of tourists from West Africa. With the onset of the unpredictable and prolonged Congolese wars, the hotels have fallen into disrepair, the tourists are few, and the occasional surge of violence when the rebel forces try to wrest it from the government makes it (according to the same magazine poll last year) ‘the second worst town on earth to live in or visit for any length of time’. Which makes it a wonderful haven for people like ourselves…we had the beaches to ourselves, the hotel was inexpensive, and the restaurants had all the seafood you could eat for very manageable prices, and even more manageable risk.

We met up with some friends who had arrived earlier in the day, made some phone calls to reserve a 4WD truck for the next morning, and then had a beachfront dinner that couldn’t be beat. The next day, accompanied by several other vehicles filled with some Embassy friends, we made our way into the jungle near Pointe Noire to visit a chimpanzee reserve run by an elderly woman and her young assistant from Chicago. This reserve rehabilitates chimps who have fallen afoul of humanity, either by living in a deteriorating jungle or by having been raised as someone’s pet, and provides the training they need in order to be released back into the wild. They have chimps from newborns to one frail old grandfatherly greyhair who is the equivalent of about 110 in human years. We could not stop laughing at the foolishness of the baby chimps, as they tumbled and played on their jungle gym. One adolescent, who had been a housepet of one of our traveling companions almost 5 years earlier, quickly recognized its previous owner and ran up to her. It was a touching moment.

After a stupendous day seeing the chimps and hiking around the region, the assistant led us on some 4WD roads across the reserve to the coast, and we emerged at a pristine inlet where we had the 5-mile long crescent of white sand beach all to ourselves. The waves were perfect for body surfing, so we stripped down to minimal garments, and had a great time frolicking in the surf and getting sand in our noses. At one point, I realized that we were probably quite indistinguishable from the chimps we had just left. Eventually, sunburned and sandblasted, we had to return south to Point Noir, so we loaded up the jeeps and drove into the setting sun. After returning to Pointe Noire, and having another beachfront dinner that couldn’t be beat, we declared it an excellent day, and gushing about making plans to come back and do this again, we went to bed.

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