As our trip was about to begin, most of us confessed to harboring a few worries about what could potentially go wrong. Some of us were petrified of snakes, while others (namely, our herpetologist-slash-doctor) were worried about not seeing enough of them. Some of us were afraid of warlords or other madmen; others were afraid of catching a new malady that would come to be named after them. Personally, my number one fear came from my Bradt guidebook: “People new to exotic travel often worry about tropical diseases, but it is accidents that are most likely to carry you off. Road accidents are very common in many parts of the Congos so be aware and do what you can to reduce risks: try to travel during daylight hours, always wear a seatbelt, and refuse to be driven by anyone who has been drinking.”
We’ve seen our fair share of road accidents already, and we know that drinking and driving is extremely common here. A Congolese mentor once told me that it’s normal for professional bus drivers to be at least a little drunk, and that passengers encourage the driver to drink more because they think the alcohol will make him braver and able to go faster.
So it wasn’t new news to me but still, this passage stuck with me. It turned me into the seatbelt nazi of our trip. But on par with my worries about road transportation, were my worries about air transportation.
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It wasn’t so long ago that safe air travel from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa required an overnight stay in another country. That’s right — the two biggest cities in the same country, only 2 or 3 hours apart, had no decent flight between them. (Nor roads; the two are separated by an “impenetrable” forest.) Air Kenya linked them but with an overnight stay in Nairobi. Ethiopian Airlines linked them through Addis Ababa. Same story with South African but with a stay in Johannesburg, a truly inefficient detour.
Notice I said “safe” air travel. There were other options, but all of them have such poor safety and maintenance records, they’ve been banned from almost all foreign airspace. Congo’s national airline, Hewa Bora, closed its doors in 2011 after most of its fleet had been crashed. (I don’t mean to sound cavalier about this; we know someone who lost a brother in that last accident.) Expats way more hard-core than us who have managed to travel intact with domestic airlines have told us stories about sitting in plastic patio chairs bolted to the floor, and being instructed to close all the window shades before landing so passengers wouldn’t spot any military secrets from the air. Many accidents are caused by lack of fuel, or recycled fuel, often sold by crooked airline officials themselves. There’s also the problem of purposely overloading the cargo in exchange for bribes. But one spectacular crash was apparently caused by a crocodile, brought on board and let loose somehow, causing a stampede of passengers towards the flight deck and throwing the plane off balance as it was trying to land. (They would have been better off staying seated in their plastic chairs.)
Seb and I were ready to take two extra days of vacation to avoid all of the above scenarios, even if it meant catching up with our group later. Luckily we didn’t have to make that decision, as a new airline called Congo Airways came along in October 2015, coached by Air France and using planes not from the Soviet era but from Alitalia. We all discussed our options and then booked tickets for eight.
Like so many other things in the Congo, often the stories are far more fantastic than the reality. Everything worked out fine. Except for the confusing, often maddening and sometimes hilarious boarding process which is true of all flights leaving Lubumbashi (and even more so in Kinshasa, as we shall soon see), Congo Airways was extremely pleasant. The flight attendants were polite and friendly, checking our ticket stubs three times to point us to our non-plastic seat assignment. They were able to get everyone seated and baggage put away in record time. We had purchased economy tickets but there was FOOD! And WINE! Trilingual announcements came frequently from the flight deck. Clean bathrooms. Super impressed.
Arrival procedures in Kinshasa were remarkably straightforward and smooth. Domestic flight, yes, but there’s still passport control to get through. A busy arrivals hall but we were through in no time. Even more remarkably, within minutes of arrival we met Ernest, who would be our bilingual tour guide for the trip. Ernest had a pretty strong stutter and facial twitch, both of which, we would learn, worsened whenever he told little fibs — but I liked him and his broad smile immediately. Ernest had a van waiting outside, a comfortable van in fact, with working seat belts and space for exactly eight of us, plus all our luggage which two helpers loaded. Ernest passed out little decorative notebooks, exactly eight of them. Maybe I’ve been in the Congo too long but all this correct addition struck me as a very good start.
(Earlier when we had checked into the airport in Lubumbashi, our handler had given me a good fright when he’d said, “There are six of you traveling today, right?” Good thing I’d brought all the receipts showing our eight tickets.)
Kinshasa itself was a place of deep mystery to me and others in our party. We had no idea what to expect. Some people we’ve known who’ve lived or traveled there report very much enjoying it. Others claim it is a hellhole beyond imagination which is best avoided. All this talk backwards and forwards for the last several years has only added to its mystique; it was a place I knew I needed to see for myself. A friend and I became giddy with anticipation as our husbands rolled their eyes. I joked that once we survived this place, we could drag the boys to India with us, a place both of us enjoyed that both of them refuse to see.
Shortly after this auspicious start, we started to smell something. The smell soon became a stench, an unrelenting poisonous cloud of rotting trash, a funk beyond any trash funk I’ve ever smelled before. All of us in the van began coughing, covering our mouths, crying. By the mercy of some divine being it soon passed — and to tell you the truth, we never smelled it again during our four trips back and forth on this same road. Must have been a mighty wind that day coming from the trash dumps, I don’t know. But at that point I turned to the boys and said, “India smelled better than this.”
Soon the streets narrowed and we ran into the traffic jam of taxi-buses turning every direction, people squeezing in between cars, the side “streets” of dirt and mud and people everywhere — and could not believe our eyes. We were all too wide-eyed and engrossed to take many photos, but would have three more chances before the trip ends, as we’ll return on this route the next morning, and will repeat the whole thing at the end.
The “City Tour Focusing on the Bonobos” our itinerary promised took us through the city with no bonobo sightings and very few points of interest pointed out by Ernest, who was sitting in the front seat that was so tall I could barely see his face much less read his lips. That plus his stutter made it nearly impossible to communicate. Mostly he talked to the driver and the super-tall helper also in the front seat blocking the view. Saw Ernest snap a selfie with some of us in the background, later he would do the same thing on the flight to Mbandaka.
After almost an hour of driving, our van turned from the main streets onto a side road, and then another. We must be getting close to our hotel. An inauspicious sign this time as the street was so full of deep puddles the van could not get through. We waited patiently while the van maneuvered up, down, and around, thinking it would be easier if we just got out and walked. Finally our chariot positioned us in front of our palace for the night: Hotel Belle Vie. The good life. Sure.
The check-in clerks were surly, and barked for our passports. When I gave one of the clerks mine, he said no, only the men’s. I laughed. He did not crack a smile. The rooms upstairs were spartan but had clean beds. Found a cockroach running across the floor, ha! I had told my aunt Susan earlier that day as she wished me a happy birthday that I was expecting those. But again someone’s arithmetic was correct as there were exactly four rooms waiting for us. Some even had cold AC running, a welcome relief. Didn’t want to spend any time in the bathroom, it was falling apart and pretty hard on the eyes. But there was a working toilet and sink — which would turn out to be our last until we returned to this exact spot nine days from now — and later Seb took a cold shower sitting down with the handheld shower faucet while I made a poor choice to skip it.
Suddenly Ernest appeared in the hallway and started saying goodbye. Wait, that’s it? I asked. That was our tour for the day? What about the bonobos? He laughed and said that we arrived far too late to see the bonobos. (We arrived exactly as planned.) He showed us the eight airline tickets for tomorrow’s flight to Mbandaka, safely put away in his bag — well, nine in fact, as he’s going with us — and said he would return in the morning at 5:30 to take us back to the airport. For this evening, we’re on our own. We looked at him. But this is a safe neighborhood to wander around, he added. Even after dark? I asked, which was coming soon. Yes, no problem.
So after a little pit stop, our intrepid group of eight wandered up and down the scenic street in front of our hotel, in search of the good life.
We ended up back at our hotel for dinner, since no one was really in the mood to wander too far. The restaurant was a lonely and unattractive place with a few overweight hookers hanging out at the bar, but they made very fresh, very tasty Indian food that everybody enjoyed and seemed to have zero problems digesting afterwards. So at least there’s that.
After dinner, it was early to bed as we had an early morning coming up. We were to have breakfast, get packed up and checked out of the hotel, before meeting Ernest for our return trip to the airport at 5:30am.
Let me give you one guess how that rendezvous worked out?
We were nervous. After the long drive from the airport yesterday (why, oh why did they take us so far just to come to this crappy hotel?), we knew we had a long drive back. In rush hour. We didn’t yet know the intensity that is the check-in process for flights out of Kinshasa, but we figured it would take some time. I began to regret not snatching those eight tickets out of Ernest’s bag when I saw them the day before.
Finally, right around 6am, our van arrives. No Ernest, but whatever. We pile in and Seb tries to give the driver a hard time for being late. Not sure he speaks French. (The driver, not Seb.) Then a few blocks down the road a car rounds a corner wide, swinging a door open in front of us. It was Ernest, being driven by his wife. He jumped in and made his apologies. We settled in for a crazy ride.
When we eventually reached the airport — with teeth clenched — it became apparent Ernest was with us for good reason. Numerous, confusing blockages awaited us, where you needed some kind of secret code to pass through. It even seemed difficult for the van to enter the parking lot. Lots of cars blocking our way that were pulled over or turned around, lots of cars cutting others off though the officials did attempt to chastise those who budged and finally waved us through, out from behind a car whose impaired driver had stumbled away some time ago. Somehow we managed to park and ignored the random people wandering around trying urgently to get our attention. We jogged to catch up to Ernest who was headed for a “gate” if you can call it that — blocked by an official sitting in a plastic chair holding a rope attached to a tire, with some weird cans on the ground or something — and after an unfriendly exchange it appeared we were grudgingly allowed to enter, single-file, while other people waiting behind the line pushed through the open spot, tripping us. After crossing we had to look behind and count to see if everyone made it through. Just outside the entrance of the airport another official grumbled and counted us while we tried to stay together. Guns everywhere. What happens if you don’t know the protocol or the language and just try to walk in? Inside, an unmanned x-ray machine, next to an unmarked desk of people who looked at us like we were doing something wrong. We tried to find a place to stand out of the way while Ernest went off to check us in.
Eventually we were called up so that all our luggage could be weighed. This line, no that line, no THAT line. So many people pushing us around and trying to cut us off, it was weird. We also accidentally get in each other’s way a lot, especially with our big packs. The weighing and passing out of boarding passes was a joke, we all got the wrong names. Now let’s walk back out of here, this way, no, no, that way! We make our way to the immigration/tax line, where Ernest tries to pass out four tax receipts to each person but gives us all a random combination of different ones, of course with the wrong names (though barely legible). Also the line is immense and barely moving. We check our watches and note it’s past boarding time. Meanwhile in this echo chamber of an open two-story hall there are dozens of people above us just leaning over the handrail and watching, apparently with nothing better to do. For some unknown reason, they were whistling and making loud kissing noises, so loud we could barely hear each other. We did our best to ignore them, noting that neither Ernest nor all the officials around us seemed phased by this at all.
Finally made it through the tax receipt line and then waited in another line for immigration. Yes, an immigration check (and there would be many, many more) even though we’re not leaving the country. Two people called me up for translation assistance (where was Seb? and Ernest?), but all went well. A couple people in our party were missing their passports; they had been sent to Kinshasa weeks before, ironically, to get updated visas. But they were assured they could still travel domestically with a special piece of paper. Turns out one of those papers had expired. Oops! That left a little yellow residence card; not officially good enough for travel, but what can we do about it now? One of the officials stands up and starts shaking his fists at us, yelling “Passports! Passports!” and finished with longish eye contact with me, I guess because I had already been helping out. So I stepped up and told him in my best slow French that so-and-so lives here in the country, their passport is currently with this particular government getting an updated visa, but in the meantime they should be allowed to travel domestically. He listened to me carefully and with that, he looked at this person’s yellow residence card in his hand, and then sat down and started writing. No more yelling, and within a minute or so, so-and-so was through. Within ten or fifteen minutes, so were the rest of us.
Once past immigration there was an x-ray machine. I tried to put my little things in a tray as an official took the tray away. I took it back, and he absent-mindedly took it away again. Finally I got hold of the tray and put it on the x-ray belt, then struggled to get my pack off just a half-second too long before a woman cut me off, sneaking up on my blind side. I gave her the right of way thinking I had been too slow for her, but she was in absolutely no rush. Oh so we’re sharing the belt, I guess? As I heaved my pack onto the belt in between her things, an official sitting nearby behind a screen hollered at me, “Doucement! Doucement!” like I was the one causing problems. I wanted to punch him in the face.
Walking through the x-ray machine, the official who had been pulling my tray away from me was grumpy and dismissive. I remember having a little trouble pulling my things off the x-ray machine, too, LOTS of officers standing there looking for ways to make us feel we’re at their mercy. One of them leans in towards me and says, “Vous avez quelque chose pour nous?” looking for a tip. Seriously, I’m trying to put all my things back on doucement without holding up the line for others (and it’s quite busy) and you want me to take this moment to search for my wallet deep inside my bag and give you something? How about a punch in the face, all of you.
As each one of us escapes this chaos we gather nearby and watch the others struggling to make it through. Some people in our party were carrying knives, but it’s food and little tools that get most of the attention. People scramble looking for help. Most likely some money changed hands before all was forgiven. You can carry on just about anything here, as long as the price is right.
After a long line near the doors there’s another hand search through our baggage. For what, I have no idea. More people cutting us off and officials looking at us like it’s our fault. After that we have to get wanded, by people who never say anything or give any direction, they just sort of look at you. Shall I put all my things down for you? Am I finished? Can I go? Three more stops before boarding. Tickets. More tax papers. Another passport check. This time there were fewer flight attendants, much less friendly, looked like they couldn’t be bothered. Nobody was on time on that particular flight, and nobody seemed to care.
Oh — did I mention this flight was with one of those domestic operators we wanted to avoid? Well, no choice here but to roll the dice. It’s only an hour, right?
After writing up my recollection of this chaos, Seb asked me why I didn’t mention the airport handler that was helping Ernest that morning. What, there was a handler? I asked. Yes, the whole time! he said. Apparently he met our van out in the parking lot, yelled at Ernest that we were late, and went through all the lines with us, even holding our passports at the end of the process until he was sufficiently paid. I never noticed him. THAT’S how crazy this whole experience was.
Next up: Mbandaka. Bring on the beach!
A short but smart blog post on the street sweepers of Kinshasa here.
Plastic chairs on flights here. (And don’t miss the incredible last paragraph.)
While searching for more air-related stories I fell for this one — and was delighted to find more crocodile stories as well. This is a must-read for aviation buffs! And has given me new respect for Congo’s domestic pilots. Then the story turned into a well-told history lesson about this country, its corruption and its tenacity — two more themes relevant to our story here. It’s a long but very entertaining read.
Not entirely relevant, but a timely read about the late Muhammad Ali’s 1974 Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa here. Do you remember that Foreman was favored to win, by far? I’ve read elsewhere that Ali trained better and had the support of the crowd, in part because he got out and enjoyed the city, embracing the local culture. Things were a lot less chaotic then, I’m guessing.