Kinshasa - Day 1 - Airport to the Hotel
I was happy when I landed in Paris that I finally got a text message back from my guide, Papa John. That made me feel much more comfortable about landing in Kinshasa, seeing as how I’ve read many bad stories about the experience.
It is 6:30 local time on Sunday evening as I land, and it is completely dark already. Since I was in the middle of the plane, I didn’t get a good look at the landing, but what I could see, there didn’t seem to be too many lights.
We disembarked the airplane at N’djili International Airport (FIS) down mobile stairs directly to the tarmac where we were herded into shuttles and driven to the immigration building. The immigration building was a little intimidating, though nothing nearly as scary as what I have read. Sure, there were many people in berets openly carrying weapons, but they were all very friendly, or at least uninterested, and mainly tried to move traffic along in an efficient manner. I did witness one French guy arguing with the customs official and then one of the soldiers. I’m not sure what he forgot or didn’t have, but they were giving him a hard time. While in line I met an American business man who had traveled to Kinshasa in the past. He said that they will occasionally ask to see your letter of invitation, a requirement for obtaining a visa to get into the country. I didn’t have mine, since it wasn’t returned to me after providing it to the Embassy in D.C. to obtain my visa. So that had me a little worried. He said if they asked for it, just play the dumb American, which isn’t too difficult, it turns out.
After presenting my passport and having my visa scrutinized without too much trouble, I was herded into the line where they look at your Yellow Fever card, a requirement for foreigners to travel freely in the DRC. After that rather painless experience, it was off to the luggage area, but not before having one more person scrutinize my passport. This one had me worried because he looked, then gave it back to me, then asked to look at it again. I had heard and read stories about how officials will occasionally mess with you to try to get bribes. It seemed like this guy was going to do that to me, but I kept calm, tried to hide any fear I had, and it apparently worked and he stopped messing with me.
In the luggage area, I met Norbert, or at least that’s what I came to call him because I can’t remember his actual name. I think that was his last name! He had my name on a sign that he was holding, and I was happy to see him there!!! It meant I was probably going to make it to my hotel after all!!! We waited for about 20 minutes while my luggage made its way to the terminal, then headed out to where my guide was waiting.
I had texted Papa John once I got off the plane and he was waiting at the airport for me as promised. Norbert ushered me through many throngs of people all offering to do one thing or another for a tip. I kept my head down and followed Norbert about 200 yards to where I first met Papa John, my guide for the week, who was wearing a Kansas Jayhawks t-shirt, jeans, and a cowboy hat.
I paid Norbert and tipped the kid who pushed the cart for me, then loaded up my stuff into Papa John’s 2008 (year is an estimate) Toyota Tercel, then made my way around to the left side of the car and got in the front seat. That’s right, the car had the steering wheel on the right side, like in Britain. This made for some good conversation right away as I have never ridden in a car with the steering wheel on that side before. I was expecting that we would be traveling on the left side of the road as well, but that proved to not be the case. After looking around at other cars, there were many with the opposite configuration, with the steering wheel on the left, like here in the States. The best I can figure, they just get whatever used car they can get, regardless of where it originated. Papa John’s car just happened to originate from a country where they drive on the left!
The drive from the airport was an interesting one. The road itself was actually quite nice, and there were many street lights and the like. Papa John, who claims his English is not so good (it seemed pretty good to me), said that the Chinese were hired to build this and some other roads. The road had 3 lanes and was relatively clear of traffic, for awhile. Papa John threw in a CD, Merle Haggard. Papa John started singing along with “Okie from Muskogee” and asked me if people really didn’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. I had to admit that I had no idea, that I had never been there… Papa John told me that he likes country music, and that he considered himself the world’s only Congolese Cowboy.
At one point, things changed. The road was still pretty decent, but it got dark. I could just make out the outlines of many, many people lining the road. They were very close to the road, but there wasn’t much for light in the area, so I couldn’t really tell what they were doing. I asked Papa John what people did on a Sunday night in Kinshasa, and he said he didn’t know, maybe listening to some music, maybe out for a beer… At several points, people would just cross the street, despite the fact that there were now many cars traveling at somewhat fast speeds.
The road also got busy! Not BUSY, busy, like I would experience later in the trip, but busy enough that there was a lot of horn usage, and a lot of weaving in and out of traffic. At one point, Papa John said that you don’t want to “bump” anybody out here. If you bump somebody, and you have a nice care like this (his car had 180,000 miles or kilometers on it), you will be killed. I was, at that point, very happy I had hired a guide and driver!
As we drove on, we eventually wound into an area that was less crowded and better lit. It was Gombe, the commercial area, and what is ultimately “downtown” for Kinshasa. There were some nice buildings there, but nothing like what you would expect for a city of 10 million people. Around 9:00 PM local time, we pulled onto a rough, dirt road, pulled up to a gate surrounded by 10 foot high fences with razor wire on the top (something you see EVERYWHERE in Kinshasa), and Papa John honked his horn, something I would get very used to over the course of the upcoming week. A man came down, peeked out of the gate, then opened it and admitted us to the Sunny Day Flat Hotel and Guest House.
After parking, a man walked us down to my room. I thanked Papa John, paid him for half of his week’s work, and he left, leaving me to myself. After 24+ hours of travel, I was physically and mentally exhausted. But I wanted to unpack, and I needed to take my malaria medication, which you’re supposed to take with food, so I decided to try out my kitchen facilities.
I took out a pot, filled it with some water from the tap, hoping that the boil I was about to give it would kill off any parasites in it, and put it on the stove. My plan was to make some Raman Noodles, some of which Jenny had packed for the trip. While the water was getting up to a boil, I unpacked a bit.
My room was pretty modern. It had a television, air conditioner, stove, refrigerator, full bathroom with shower and bidet, and a voltage regulator for when the power didn’t exactly run as advertised. This was a nice feature - I plugged my computer into this so I didn’t have to worry about power surges taking it out.
After 20 minutes, my water had yet to boil. Being quite tired, I tried to debug the situation, but was failing. I tried to use different burners, I tried to use 1 instead of 6, thinking that the Chinese stove (an IceStream, ironically) might use the opposite indications. Meanwhile, the water wouldn’t boil.
I decided to just forget it and trust that it would eventually boil. Meanwhile I decided to wash myself. A full day of travel made me pretty nasty. For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to wash up in the bidet. I squatted over it, pants down, and tried to wash my nether parts in there. That didn’t work so well… I ultimately decided to just take a quick shower, which was a wise decision. The bidet went unused the remainder of the trip.
After my shower, the water still refused to boil. I spastically grabbed at the pot and it spilled all over my hands and pants. Luckily it didn’t burn me badly - I could just imagine having to go to the emergency room on a Sunday night in Kinshasa!!!
In the end, I took out a different pot with a heavier bottom, and it proved to do the trick. I ate my Raman Noodles, took my pill, then fell quickly asleep around 10:30 local time…
Things seemed to be going fine and I figured I would have a nice head start toward being adjusted to the +7 hour time difference. It wasn’t to be, though. After 4 hours of fitful sleep, I awoke underneath my mosquito net, sweating profusely. After an hour of tossing and turning, I realized that my air conditioner must not be working properly. I got up, tried turning it on using the remote control, got up on a chair and tried to fix it, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually I just gave up, threw off my covers and sweated it out.
I must have eventually fallen asleep, because I woke up to my alarm at 7:00. Papa John was supposed to come at 9:00, but I figured I could afford another hour, so I sweated through another hour of sleep before finally waking to my newly set alarm.