Congo – Day 1

Posted on January 30, 2014

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The flight from Johannesburg to Congo is three and a half hours. Other than the air stewardesses I was the only woman on the flight which was practically empty. There were probably only a handful of us dotted about the cabin, all of the white passengers looked like they worked in the extractive industries and the African passengers channelled the business look with tailor-made shiny suits with trouser legs that were too short. They all wear designer socks, so of course they need people to see that, go figure!

As I raced off the flight to collect my baggage in true London mode I was greeted by a border control man slumped in his chair asleep in his booth. I coughed loudly. He awoke startled and barked something at me in French clearly miffed to be woke up so suddenly. No one had informed me that I had to fill in an arrival card. I smiled broadly and pushed my visa through the window. He scowled, sat up and started jabbing his stubby finger in the air pointing left. I turned to look behind me to see the other passengers had finally caught up with me and were bent over double furiously scribbling over a glass counter.

“Talk about being on the ball,” I thought as I backtracked to the counter to grab a form. “I could have walked straight through without any problem whatsoever if I hadn’t woken up sleeping beauty.”

Ten minutes later my cellophane wrapped luggage squeaked its way around the conveyor belt to me. Waiting in arrivals was one of the activists I’m staying with who was busy pacing, armed crossed. Let’s call him Tarzan as his passion about saving the forests and the species within them is tantamount.

The heat in Congo envelopes you as you leave the terminal building. A sticky humid blanket that is impossible to shake off. The sky is so bright even with shades on you’ll quint in the prickling heat. The government buildings in Brazzaville are quite pretty, large, white and colonial-esque. Each one manned by armed guards lurking in the shade of a nearby tree. Here the tarmac roads are less chaotic than Kampala, still busy, but with steady traffic but not rammed. There’s not the same dirty smoggy air that there was in Uganda. The official green taxis are plentiful but I think that all official cabbies outside of London drive like complete lunatics. They constantly curb crawl you to see if they can pick up a ride.

Tarzan told me that the majority of non African people living here are Lebanese, south east Asians, mainly Chinese and then the NGO community of people from the developed world. I was told to expect being mistaken for Lebanese, it could be worse. I arrived at lunchtime and we went to a small unassuming cafe for something to eat. When the menus were placed in front of me I was stunned at the prices! Unlike east Africa where you can dine like a King for very litle, here it is quite the opposite. A plate of hummous with pita and a small salad (I know I broke the first rule of foreign travel: no salad and no ice – and in case your wondering I was absolutely fine) came to about £15. Brazzaville has to be one of the most expensive African countries there is. Tarzan said to me the cost of food is astronomical. No wonder he is built like a whippet.

After being in Jo’burg for a week where we Brits get 18 rand to the pound and everything is as cheap as chips, this next leg of my travel will be on a strict budget. I got Tarzan to drop me at the biggest supermarket in town that accepts Visa to get some supplies for breakfast. He rides a scooter. My least favourite mode of transport following the death of a best mate of the northerner’s. I don’t care how careful you think you drive, they are dangerous and I have yet to be convinced. Hopping off he gave me the keys to the apartment advising me to get a taxi home as it’s quite far to walk. Ha! I thought, you clearly don’t know me very well and will soon learn that Asha Tanna likes to walk. Safety here is not an issue as there are cops on every street corner. Street crime is very low, but you still have to be streetwise. .

Inside the supermarket my heart sank. I was horrified at the prices. I looked at picking up a small cheap caffetiere as I really wanted to have some decent coffee in the morning and almost fainted when I saw the price. It wasn’t even glass or a Bodum for God’s sake. I took out my phone to use the calculator as I thought this can’t be right?! But alas my maths in’t that bad and it was correct. I kid you not it was £56!!!!

“Holy crap,” i muttered under my breath, “How on earth do people live here?”

Turning on my heels i decided that there has got to be another way to have coffee. So I improvised and picked up coffee filter sleeves for a perculator and thought I’ll stick that in a cup with coffee and pour hot water onto it to filter out (I did it this morning and it worked a treat, although a tad messy). Whizzing round the aisles I grabbed honey, quick oats, three apples, long life milk and sunscreen (that was the most expensive – a cool £25! for just 30ml)

“Sod it I thought, I need something or I’ll fry over here and The Blonde’s maid in Jo’burg put mine away so that neither of us could find it.”

Total shopping bill £53. So all that has to last me a week. I passed a small outdoor market on the way out and went to see if I could get some bananas. Again quite pricey but i bit the bullet and paid £2 for a small bunch.

After a wander around town and by the lake which looks across to Kinshasa in DRC I decided to walk home. I had agreed to be back at 5.30pm and no later or there would be trouble, plus I had the keys. So off I went. My sense of direction is pretty good, but I ended up at a junction I didn’t recognise and wasn’t sure which way to go.

Perched on a chair was a security guard, I asked in my best pigeon French the best way to the jail (maison d’arret). Yes good landmark I know. He muttered something about it being too far to walk. I told him it wasn’t a problem. Passing by was a man in his late 40s who stopped to join the conversation.

Turns out Edgar works for the Catholic Church and being a good soul he accompanied me a little way before drawing a map for me in the dirt using a stone. He was surprised I was here as a tourist. He lives in an area that sounded like poulet village – i’m pretty sure it’s not chicken village but that’s what it sounded like. He has a 17 year old son who goes to university and a wife. Amazing what bits of info you can glean when you’re not even fluent in a language. I got home bang on 5.30pm chuffed that after less than 12hours I had started to get my bearings so quickly.

Tarzan swung home around 6pm and we went to meet his flatmate and best friend – The Brit – named for obvious reasons. We ate at a “smart restaurant” on the river called Mama Wata which was filled with whites and rich Africans driving four by fours and young pretty girls clinging to the arms of older sleazy men. I had a prawn salad with green beans and couscous and a bottle of water. Then we headed to a nearby bar called Bodega and had a local beer (650ml) before heading home to bed. These guys are very conscientious about the work they do and getting drunk of a school night is not their thing.

Today I am off to the big outdoor market with Tarzan. He speaks fluent French so can haggle for me. It’s run by the petroleum company Total – christ they get everywhere – and it’s a good place to look around. Sadly I can’t take my camera as photographs are a no-no everywhere in this place. Apparently i’ll end up getting arrested and on my tourist visa they will not be happy if they make the discovery that I’m a hack and not a “writer” as I declared.

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