Sunday, April 10, 2011

Waiting for Godot (NEW!)

For more pics see album "Waiting for Godot".
Finally we seem to be at the end of what has been a very tiresome, boring, nerve wrecking waiting period of nearly three weeks. Our boat is scheduled for departure on Tuesday, maybe even Monday… How did we get ourselves into this while we were determined not to stay in Kinshasa for more than two weeks?

After our first visit to the ports we decided not to pursue a place on one of the private barges. We can handle a certain level of discomfort, but living on a barge for several weeks, cooking, eating, sleeping, showering and shitting while squished between tens, maybe even hundreds of other passengers, their luggage, merchandise and livestock (goats, chickens, and who knows what else…) seemed just a tad over the top. That narrowed down the choice to two options: ONATRA or the private company running from Beach Rafi. When we called the chief after his staff meeting, we were disappointed to learn that ONATRA personnel were still on strike. So we waited for news from Beach Rafi. They contacted us, as promised, before the weekend with the delightful news that a boat would be leaving next Thursday. When a couple of days later they communicated us very favorable prices, promised us a cabin and gave us a rendezvous to arrange practicalities, we still had high hopes of meeting our deadline. Though from then on the information we received turned out vague, conditional or just plain contradictory, but somehow convincing enough to keep us hanging. Unfortunately, the fact that they would postpone the departure date at least five times - while still using the phrase “at the very latest…” - wasn’t our only sorrow.

At one point the chief of DGM (Direction Générale de la Migration) from the port greedily declared that certain “formalities” needed to be fulfilled and that for the mere sum of 200$ he would be happy to settle them for us. On the one hand we weren’t too keen on getting ourselves involved in DRC’s notoriously corrupted bureaucracy. On the other hand the concept of tourism, even less known in DRC than in some other African countries, raises a lot of suspicion. This creates the need to justify your presence with documents to back up your story. A certified authorization to move around in the country would probably save us a lot of hassle further down the road. That’s what won us over. We negotiated a better price for this “service”, but still ended up doing most of the work ourselves. We assembled a file consisting of a letter to the grand director of the DGM, a copy of our contract with MSF plus a self-made French translation, a certificate of our registration with the Belgian embassy, a copy of our boat tickets and copies of our passports and visa. Basically a lot of official looking papers, lots of official stamps but very little significant information. Once completed and submitted the game of asking for but never getting concrete news of our file began.

Meanwhile we tried to keep ourselves busy. Taking a closer look at Kinshasa, it’s a megalopolis turning its back at Brazzaville and the Congo River, but not facing inland either. Decent transport routes towards the ocean are limited and the vast hinterland is practically only accessible by air. It might partly explain why certain goods are so precious, but more probably it’s primarily the presence of a huge and wealthy expat community – and the political elite – that makes prices skyrocket. Most of them seem to live in golden cages, too scared or even formally forbidden by their organization to leave their cars and discover their host town. Outside the city center, countless lively, muddy streets house the ever-growing local population, who survive on minimal income and cheap basics. Numerous Lebanese and Asian businesses add to the local flavor. However, in contrast to other African capitals, little of this has resulted (yet) in architectural progress: apart from the Belgian-era buildings and the Gécamines skyscraper dating back to Maréchal Mobutu’s golden years, very few landmarks are visible throughout town. Only recently, with President Kabila’s Cinq Chantiers on the way (also dubbed “Ching-Chang-Cheng” because of the Chinese contractors), modern buildings and better roads are under construction.

We visited our closest relatives in the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary a little out of town

and saw enough mud on our way to the magnificent Zongo falls to discourage us from considering the almost non-existing road to Lubumbashi as an alternative to cross DRC towards the east, especially in the rainy season.

We checked out the small exhibit of terribly undervalued national cultural patrimony at the ethnographic museum, walked around town in search of plastic junk and food for the boat trip,

socialized endlessly with other travelers, expats and locals alike and drank more beer and sodas than we would in a year in Belgium, tried our first caterpillars... Hell, we even bought souvenirs. After 3 weeks and a half, we’ve never been more prepared for a journey…

We were about to lose the last straw of patience, when Peter – a Brit cycling against malaria – published an amazing story about his recent boat journey on the Congo. Having seen the third and last barge of our convoy being loaded, we decided to hold on. Today we finally got hold of our “Authorization from DGM” 

and were told to come to the port on Monday with the bikes and all of our luggage. If all goes well, we’ll finally be off on the greatest, freakiest cruise of our lives on Tuesday, at the very latest…