|Boulevard du 30 Juin|
Instead, I'll do in reverse, and purportedly in eight hours by bus, the more than month-long journey Conrad/Marlow did by foot to Kinshasa from Matadi, where rapids preclude up-river navigation. As for 'The Horror! The Horror!', Django the taxi driver says the Pacha hotel where I’m booked might qualify, even though it's just across the road from the Memling, the best hotel in town and an institution in itself. As we pass by he seems to have a point – the dark passageway into it looks dirty, gloomy and is swarming with suspicious types, dismissed by Django as 'little thieves and bandits.' We proceed on by to the nearby Ave Maria which, despite ongoing dust-producing restoration work, has large airy rooms at the same price - $85.
|Side street in downtown Kinshasa|
The city is in a terrible state, buildings in various stages of disrepair, the broad avenues crumbling, broken, often no more than sand. But the centre, when it was still Leopoldville, was built on a grand scale, and it must have been pretty attractive. To move on from the awful hoary old dowager cliché to an awful boxing one: in its prime it must have been a prize fighter, could've been a contender, but now it's battered, nose-flattened, punch drunk, slurring, staggering with dementia.
|Behind the Memling and Pacha in Downtown Kinshasa|
On the broad dusty Boulevard 30 Juin beggars, many of them women with little children, sit in the dirt outside massive official buildings, one of which would be a credit to gigantic communist-type architecture. Definitely worth a picture, and I've been happily snapping away despite being assailed by dozens of shouting passersby, telling me 'it's not authorised.' This is especially true when I wander round La Cite, the vast crumbling true Africa centre of the metropolis with its long broken roads, dirt alleys, and jumbled shacks.
|Street in La Cite|
|Another street in La Cite|
And, again of course, the Chinese rebuilding the roads. Let's only hope they do a better job than in Angola. And... And... And...
The Dollar! The Dollar! Back in the hotel cafe drinking tea and watching South Africa clobber France. The front desk man approaches. There's a woman in a business suit waiting for me at the desk. She tells the receptionist I invited her up stairs. I did no such thing, quoths I, I don't know her from Adam – or
Eve. She continues to try to whore herself out on poor ancient me. What people will only do for a dollar! Wham bam, NO thank you Ma'am, and it's back to watching the game.
|At the entrance to La Cite|
|Kinshasa's 'stalinist' buildings|
The Squalor! The Squalor! Not here, anyway! After watching Maradona doing his Danny De Vito (with hair) antics at the Argentina-Greece match last night, we are walking in Gombe, the leafy river-bank quarter hosting the monumental domed presidential palace and countless resplendent embassies, verdant oases of wealth, luxury, peace and calm behind their high walls and guards. This neighbourhood is definitely a garden city.
In front of the palace rises a large bronze statue of Laurent Kabila (pere), assassinated by one of his guards in 2001, and a large mausoleum. Some think current president Joseph Kabila (fils) is better and more serious than Dad. Army tents are planted here and there along the bank under beautiful full-leafed and canopied trees - along with the occasional termite castle - guarding against the appearance of any undesirables aboard a pirogue from the other Congo. And of course, photos are verbotenissimo; don't even think of it.
There are still out-of-character dirt pathways, including one alongside the Iranian embassy, and the grand tree-lined boulevards are run down, rutted, dust-covered but still beautiful, impressive. The whole area is flag-bedecked with workers speeding the face lift (paid for by the European Union, according to St. Jacques) for the golden jubilee independence celebrations.
The embassies – British, US, German etc. - are large and their grounds are well manicured; pedicured too. A beautiful blue bird relieves himself on one of Her Britannic Majesty's branches. Nearby are the enormous National Bank and a few casinos, endowing those who have with a choice of where to play with their wealth.
|Tintin presides over Congo rapids|
We continue the drive parallel to the river and on to the rapids. A woman cop directing the traffic is deep in conversation on her cell phone. No wonder there's a massive jam. Another woman cop has her foot firmly planted inside an open-doored car; the driver is dutifully counting out his little 'donation' in 500 franc (50 cent) notes. We arrive at a grassy cafe with the sign 'Welcome to Tintin; when Jesus says yes, nobody can say no.'
Overlooking the rapids, a statue of Tintin sits on a log, reading a book that proclaims 'Jesus Christ is our God;' his cartoon friend, the captain, stands nearby, as does another character on horseback. Less amusingly, three beautiful monkeys – a large female and two babies - wander aimlessly around a small cage. Why the hell would anyone do that to them?
Meanwhile the Congo flows on majestically, rippling, bubbling, spraying, boiling over the river-wide rapids that halt any further navigation downstream.