Arrival in the Congo
Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
29Trip End Feb 17, 2010
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Where I stayed
We made our way through the crowd of people to the check-in area, which is closed off from the rest of the departure area and is now air conditioned. I checked in quickly with Kenya Airways and made my way through to the departure formalities area which is not air conditioned. Virtually the whole airport building was constructed around the premise that it would be air-conditioned, so the parts that aren’t are real saunas, especially in the early part of the night when the heat stored up by the building during the day, emanates back out again.
I paid my 10,000 CFA departure tax (about $25). Unlike most places where such taxed and fees are included in the cost of the ticket at the time of purchase, in Cameroon, one must pay the departure tax in cash in exchange for an exit stamp on one’s boarding pass. I supposed this makes the cash available to the powers that be with less of a paper trail.
Then I filled out the departure card, and joined the line to have my passport receive its exit stamp. By this time, though I had made no real physical effort, my shirt was soaked through from the heat and humidity. From the emigration booth, we moved to the line to have our passports checked by another ministry (the different ministries are supposed to watch-dog each other to reduce or prevent corruption, but the results of the system seem more on the order of multiplication rather than subtraction). After having my passport checked and approved again, we moved on to the metal detectors, after which, a third officer checked my passport and stamps. Thankfully I sailed through all the checks, and made the long un-air-conditioned walk to the departure gate area. My hair dripped perspiration on my ears and neck as I walked.
Because I fly often with the FlyingBlue group of airlines, I’m allowed to use the Kenya Airways business class lounge even though I fly coach. That was a treat: to be able to relax a few minutes and dry out in the small, delightfully air-conditioned lounge and have a cool drink at the same time.
At 11:30, when boarding time came, we walked back out and to the boarding gate where just a moment later were allowed to walk down the staircase to the tarmac and from there out to the Kenya Airways 737. There were delays, so we didn’t leave at 12:10 as planned but almost an hour later, which isn’t unusual. We flew across the impenetrable jungle of the heart of Africa from west to east, a flight of about 3 ½ hours, during which I probably slept two hours. We arrived in Nairobi in the early morning as the day was dawning. I headed to the Kenya Airways Lounge for a glass of cold water and a comfortable chair during my hour-long layover, then it was time to head to the gate for the flight across the impenetrable jungle of the heart of Africa from east to west. If there were a safe, direct flight from Douala to Kinshasa, it would only take about 2 hours. But Cameroon Airlines having been put mercifully out of everyone’s misery, such flights are rare, and not on a reliable airline. So I make this time-consuming crisscross in stead.
The flight to Kinshasa left very close to on time. A small breakfast was served right after takeoff, and though not very hungry, I thought it best to eat something just in case some things didn’t go as planned, and it turned out to be a happy choice. There was a group of youngish Congolese men traveling together a few rows ahead of me and on the other side of the plane. They were tough guys, dressed in the fashion of the finest America has to offer the world: gangsta rappers. Some had their hair in cornrows, some wore ball caps, most wore jewelry that might pass for bling, and a few of them had a noticable attitude. They talked loudly enough to bother everyone, and did everything they could ostentatiously. It was really quite annoying to most everyone, including the flight crew to whom they were rude and demanding.
I slept off and on for another hour and half or two hours, until we began or approach to Kinshasa. As we began to do so, the pilot came on the intercom and told us that a plane had broken down on the runway in Kinshasa (there is only one), so we would have to circle for 30 minutes before being able to land; we’d miss our 9:15 arrival time by half an hour. No one was happy about this but the would-be "gangstas" used it as a pretext to show their badness. They pulled their carryon bags from the overhead bins and had their things laid out all over the place. When the pilot finally announced we were starting our approach the bad boys, the loud ring-leader in particular, said it wasn’t worth the effort they would just keep the bags where they were. An attractive and pleasant stewardess approached and asked them nicely, then insisted firmly the luggage be stowed. The boss said something I couldn’t quite out but pulled his cell phone out (they were all supposed still to be off) and, I gathered, made to call someone in Kinshasa to complain and cause her problems. Several Congolese passengers called to him to calm down and behave, but he was having nothing of it.
A wonderful thing then happened. The slight young woman grabbed the phone out his hand, wagged a finger at him and said “you’re going to get us killed!” When he sputtered something, she continued, “Now you are going to be arrested in Zaire” (the former name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo). She had reached her limit! He sputtered again, totally surprised by this turn of events, and she repeated, “oh yes, you are going to be arrested!” and she marched off to the cockpit area to make her report.
The “gangstas” deflated noticeably as they thought this over. They felt that most of the passengers around them approved. It was a joy to behold. The thought of being arrested and jailed in the Congo, on a serious international charge of tangling with a flight crew (those draw exemplary punishments) would cause anyone to regain a great deal of perspective. They grumbled to each other and made a few brave noises, but that was the end of the problems from them.
It wasn’t however the end of our problems. The pilot announced that we were cleared to land. However shortly after we started our second decent, the pilot came on again and said there had been a misunderstanding with the control tower and we would have to circle another half an hour, but not to worry we had lots of fuel. Groans came from the passengers as we began circling again.
Just a few minutes later the pilot announced that we were being diverted to Brazzaville in the other Congo (the Republic of Congo), just the other side of the Congo River. We landed there 20 minutes later, and began waiting. We waited there on the tarmac for almost three hours. It was close to lunch time then, so the crew distributed what food was left, peanuts juices and sodas, and then we just waited. Finally at about 12:15 were took off and flew to Kinshasa which was finally clear. We finally arrived at 12:45, three hours after our scheduled arrival time. The airport in Kinshasa has adopted a bad habit from other African airports; they now have shuttle busses for the small airport. As we deplaned less that 100 meters from the arrival doors, in stead of walking, we were forced to pack solidly into the busses and wait until they were full before driving a large loop to be dropped in front of the doors we would have reached several minutes earlier if we’d been allowed to walk….
Formalities took a while, passport processing was slow, but Jacob had arranged a “fixer” for me on the other side of immigration. “Pastor Joel?” asked a man I didn’t know, as I stepped from the counter . When I replied affirmatively, he mentioned Jacob’s name and asked me to follow him, which I did to an air conditioned waiting room where I was shown to a seat. He took my luggage tag and disappeared to claim my suitcase and make sure it didn’t need to be opened by customs. I didn’t ask for this service of course and will need to find out from Jacob how much it cost him to I can cover it. A few minutes later the suitcase arrived and Jacob and I stepped out into the tropical heat to find a waiting taxi driver who took over the suitcase for the walk to his car. We drove the 45 minutes into town through traffic that was heavy at times. The roads are not in good shape, so we slalomed back and forth as we took in the sights both usual and unusual. I had my camera ready to shoot anything that looked interesting or out of the ordinary.
There are always crowds of people walking, all day long;
Finally arriving at the hotel, we released the driver with his $20 fare, and I checked in. Jacob and I had a soft drink in the cafe, caught up with the news of the church members locally, and made a plan for the use of my time here for the week I should have. There is so much to do and so little time. This is the first time I’ve been here in a year, and yet so much needs attention that can’t really be well given from afar.
It will be a very busy week.