Monday, September 6, 2010

32 - Please tell me I didn't do that

 Oh Gawd! I've just given a whole new dimension to the old saw 'they all look the same to me.'  I'm just about to leave for the banks of the Congo to navigate over to Kinshasa and a local guy turns up at the hotel to collect the money for yesterday's gorilla trip. He's asking for $50 more than I thought I had agreed with his boss on Friday. I tell him to phone his boss and check it out. He fiddles with his phone and can't get through.

'I have the number here, I'll give it to you,' quoths I.

He starts to dial, then says: 'Wait a mo, that's my number.'

'What,' quoths I, 'it was you who was here Friday?'

'Yes,' quoths he, 'don't you recognise me?'


Meanwhile it's total pandemonium at the boat departure point, called The Beach. They've pulled the road up for reconstruction and a whole dust-encaking walking detour from the taxi is in order. There are two ways of crossing – either pay four times the price and go by so-called canot rapide (rapid motor boat) that takes 12 people and performs all the migration formalities for you for $20, or join 12 million shouting others from the world's toiling and sweating masses, huge bundles swaying atop their heads, and struggle aboard a large clapped out old ferry. Muggins decides to forgo the local colour and pay the $20.

Brazzaville disappears into the haze on crossing to Kinshasa
Two guys, Fabrice and Olivier, take my case, haul it over the dusty rutted detour, buy my ticket, nurse my passport through its various stations of the cross at the long table of migration officials, see me past another police official who first tries to relieve me of 10 per cent of my money in 'tax' as though I were a local trader and not a tourist, and finally see me aboard La Liliane.

'And what about a little something for Fabrice and Olivier,' quoths they, although the service is all meant to be included in the price. Well, they put on a good bit of 'local colour' entertainment of their own during the more than hour's wait, so they're worth $5.

Kinshasa port heaves into view
La Liliane's capacity of 12 has miraculously jumped to 16 and we're pushed up towards the front, doubtless to prevent any capsising and a reprise of 1961 when the West German ambassador, journeying in the opposite direction, famously fell overboard and provided the crocodiles with their daily bread. There is, of course, no sign of life vests anywhere, not that that would help much against those giant snapping jaws.

Kinshasa port skyline
We approach Kinshasa's sky-scraper studded skyline and are tying up at the dock, also called The Beach, when muggins really does almost ape His Excellency the much lamented West German Ambassador. It's a high step up onto the iron dock, a disembarking fellow passenger has narrowed the available space, yours truly hauls himself up with a backpack pulling down on one shoulder, staggers, teeters on the brink between dock and deck, and is rescued by the grabbing hands of a couple of guards.
UN peace mission boat and post at port

A nice lady with stripes on her shoulder tags and DGM (Directorate General of Migration) on her arms takes charge of me. 'Diplomat, diplomat,' she shouts at any and everybody as she propels me towards 'the formalities.' I do not disabuse her. We now pass stations of the cross, Kinshasa style.

Fist station  - a dirty little cell-like room with a thick iron grill door above which is written 'Formalities, Diplomats and V.I.P.'  She hands my passport through the grills to a self-important fatty, who peruses it, seems satisfied and hands it back.

Now we proceed through a dirty corridor to station no: 2 – a dirty little cell-like room with a thick, clanging iron door under the title 'DGM, Bureau of Studies and Contentions.' At least it's air conditioned. She hands my passport to a second self-important fatty who peruses it, then takes a questionnaire which he fills in religiously. Name..., father's name... mother's name...

‘Are they still alive?’

'Yes,' quoths I, 'they're called Mr. and Mrs. Methuselah.'

World lung destruction - tropical hard wood awaits transport
He is not amused; I better stop being a smart arse. Now my Beatrice - actually her name is Mamacarou - takes the passport to several other stations, whither I do not follow, returns, and we're outside, where she hands me over to a taxi driver friend called Django, gives me her card, tells me to phone her if ever I come back through the port, and hovers expectantly - upon which Django informs me she's waiting for her tip.

'Tip?' quoths I. 'For a police woman? For an official?'

'Oh yes,' quoths Django, 'elsewhere you may not do so but here we tip our officials most liberally.”

I give her $3.50.

Kinshasa port view

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