Friday, September 10, 2010

36 - Apocazips Now!

View back over Matadi from road to Boma
 Didier, the young driver who's a friend of the hotel concierge, is zipping along at a startling rate on the way from Matadi to Boma, some 80 miles closer to the mouth of the great river. Matadi has one functioning traffic light, now verboten red; he ignores it. Potholes? Doesn't give them a second thought as I smack my head against the roof and duck to avoid further capital collisions. He's got only one hand on the steering wheel, and now – look, Mum, no hands at all! We're in a grand prix.

We stop on a cliff on the north bank of the Congo so that I can recover and take some photos back over Matadi. A group of young men approach: 'Good morning, Mr. white man; hey boss, chief, you got something to drink?' All mimed with gathered fingers touching the mouth in physical demonstration of the French word for tip – pourboire (to drink).

Road to Boma
The potholes become so frequent and ridged that even Didier has to slow down. Boma, incredibly run down, rises on steep hills, dominated by a tiny metal cathedral assembled in 1890, and a monstrous modern block brick one that was built later next door. On the opposite bank is Angola and down stream the Congo's vast mouth, the ports of Banana and Muanda, the Atlantic, and if you continue, Brazil. The site of a trading post for the Portuguese with the African kingdom of Congo centuries before King Leopold II's brutal folly turned it into the capital of his Belgian Free State, and later of the Belgian Congo, until Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) took over in the 1920s, it was here that Stanley ended up after completing the first known full trip of several thousand miles down the Congo from close to its source.

There's a massive 700-year-old baobab tree inside which he is said to have rested his imperial bones, a very impressive, huge multi-trunk affair that is hollow inside, providing quite a large room, with an opening cut for entry. There's a natural opening at the top where the branches start.
Roadside village
Meanwhile I've started a minor riot; I raise my camera to snap some vendors peddling car parts and tyres on the pavement. They do not take kindly to my interest; they start shouting, they shake their fists, and now they're taking off at us at a gallop. Thank goodness Didier does zip along at a startling rate.
Boma's old metal cathedral and modern monstrosity

Stanley's baobab
Apocaflips Now! OK, I shouldn't have let Didier have that beer at lunch. He's almost flipped over a man walking on the dusty broken street outside Boma’s Au Coin de Paris (Paris corner) Boutique. The right-side mirror winged the walker who jumped back just in time with a startled cry. Now he's almost flipped over another pedestrian outside Jesus-Victory Establishments. And now he's almost pranged a policeman by a bridge. At this startling rate...

Inside Stanley's baobab
Another cop stops us for a document-check-cum-bribe. Thank God he hasn't got a breathalyser. He checks the documents which are OK, but Didier has forgotten to put his seat belt on, a capital offence the way the cop describes it. I wave a 500 franc (50 cent) note in his face. 'You don't have to do that, Papa,' quoths he, quickly pocketing it with a broad smile. 'May the Good Lord protect you, Papa.' Whenever they call out to people here, they use Papa, Maman, Tonton, Tata, Frere or Soeur (Dad, Mummy, Uncle, Auntie, Bro or Sis). And 500 is the highest denomination - just imagine $100 worth of them!

We resume our three-hour grand prix back towards Matadi, past little towns, some of mud brick and straw, others of proper bricks and corrugated iron, past kids holding up dead rabbits and parts of larger
Map of Stanley's voyage down the Con
animals for sale, past a bearded village idiot dancing and conducting a make-believe orchestra, past towering trees and palms, past giant overhanging bamboos that turn the road into a long green tunnel.

The late African afternoon is lingering and golden, the sun blood red in the haze. By the time we reach the north bank, the bridge south is already lit, the hills are twinkling with Matadi's extensive spread, and we're home. But not before a smilingly friendly 'Good evening, Papa' from one of the soldiers guarding the bridge, 'you got some coffee for me to drink?' Shit, no, never touch the stuff! And once more Didier's zipping comes to the rescue.

Bustling Boma 

View over a Boma neighbourhood from the cathedral
Bulk carrier in Congo with Angola in background
Boma statue recalls slavery under Belgian rule

A Boma street

No comments:

Post a Comment