Kinshasa had a reputation for offering very little for a great deal of money in the way of hotel rooms. But the Ave Maria Hotel was similar to plenty of mid-level hotels I'd been to in both East and West Africa. Sure, I'd have preferred that this Congolese city offered some budget options that weren't full, but the Ave Maria was no different – and only a bit pricier – than mid-range hotels I'd stayed at in Cameroon, Kampala, Nairobi, or Nigeria. And the main street seemed similar to main streets in East African capital cities.
I wandered around downtown Kinshasa by foot, looking for both the chaos I'd been told to expect and for a ticket agent to sell me an aeroplane ticket so I could find my way to the south-eastern tip of DRC without sitting in the back of a cargo truck for weeks.
At a supermarket, I bought some yogurt and snacks. The supermarket was air-conditioned, upscale, expensive, and sold imported goods. The shoppers were not Congolese.
When I found a travel agent, I was told to pay in US dollars: "Just go the ATM. It will give you US dollars from your home bank account."
How were the Congolese surviving here? Things were so expensive and they were pegged to the dollar.
Being in the country for a few days did not make me an expert, certainly. But there was an air about Kinshasa, an air of opportunity and chance. Could it be that there was money to be made in Big Congo? That mineral-rich DRC offered opportunity in the form of a modern Gold Rush? Not only for extracted minerals, I thought, but also for ancillary services. Who got rich in the Alaska Gold Rush, I thought, after the first few prospectors? The suppliers. The businessmen and women who saw an opportunity within an opportunity.
DRC isn't the first country to experience simultaneous development and resource-rush. Downtown Kinshasa felt familiar, like other post-conflict zones I'd visited, but a lot bigger and with a lot more mud.
The travel agent I found offered me a few options, but none of them fit with my plan. I wanted to stay one more night so that I could go to the bonobos sanctuary. But I didn't have that option. I could fly tomorrow or in three days.
"But I can't afford three more days here," I said glumly.
"We have this flight the day after tomorrow, which goes through Nairobi to Zambia and costs $800."
"Er, no thanks." I just wanted the cheap internal flight, so I could skip over the roadless interior that could take up to three muddy weeks by cargo truck. I'd recently given up on the idea that I might find a way to get an Angolan visa and instead had decided to exit DRC at the Zambian border.
And once I'd gotten the idea of Zambia into my head, I couldn't wait. I could be in Livingstone in three days time! Beautiful Livingstone, comfortable Zambia. Wonderful food, supermarkets with little sandwiches, and nice hotels... buses that work normally on paved roads. I was fantasising about ShopRite sandwiches. Time to put the tough leg of MariesWorldTour.com to an end.
Fine, I thought. No bonobos. I bought the ticket to travel to Lubumbashi for the next morning.
The sun was starting to set as I hurried back towards the hotel. I stepped out into the main road at a pedestrian crossing and was surprised when traffic halted for me.
Kinshasa offered a lot of surprises.
I'm not saying Kinshasa is or isn't dangerous. A quick tourist visit to Kinshasa does not give me any concrete information or the right to speak intelligently about DRC. But I am saying that it seemed perfectly fine for me to walk around the main streets in daylight hours, and for people who have worked in other post-conflict zones, there is an air of familiarity, a dual economy, an air of possibility mixed with a whiff of danger, be it real or imagined.
And I thought back to East Timor in 2001, soon after the conflict there, when I stood in front of an Australian soldier speaking into her walkie-talkie in a tone of heavy sarcasm.
"Yeah, I have a, uh, TOURIST here. And she wants to cross the border. Yes, a tourist."
At least in DRC, no one laughed at me for being a tourist.
In the morning, a taxi driver dropped me off outside the security barrier at Kinshasa's airport. They all do – no one wants to pay the fee to go inside.
Traffic had been nightmarish, the road crowded and broken as drivers improvised their own alternate routes around fallen poles, mud-filled craters, and cars left for dead.
Two men were selling woven, zippered bags outside the airport. You know the kind – heavy plaid plastic that comes in different sizes. You may have used one yourself at some point en route to the laundromat.
I was thrilled to see the bag sellers – the Tintin carvings I'd purchased in Brazzaville were such odd sizes, long and thin. They didn't fit in any bag I had in my backpack.
I happily purchased a two-dollar zippered bag, carefully placed my two towel-wrapped Tintin canoes and one Tintin and Snowy carving into the bag, then zipped it up. I'd carry this on the plane to avoid the risk of souvenir damage in the luggage hold.
Check-in went smoothly in the cavernous dark old Kinshasa airport, and then I went past the security line, ignoring hints for tips.
DRC wasn't so bad, I decided. Expensive, sure. Corrupt... well, yeah. But from what I'd read, I'd expected to be put through hell first when entering the country at "the Beach", then just by existing in Kinshasa, and finally, I'd expected a kind of conflict-zone hazing ritual at the airport. But the worst thing I'd encountered so far was slow wifi and bad traffic.
At the gate X-ray machine, I was waved around to a table. X-ray machines often don't work or aren't turned on in central Africa.
"Open," said one of the security guys, a squat man in glasses. He motioned at my daypack.
I dutifully unzipped my bag. He gave it a perfunctory glance, saw nothing worth arguing over.
"Open," he said again, now pointing at my plastic bag.
Uh-oh, I thought, as his bored expression changed to one of glee when he spotted the tail end of a carved Tintin canoe.
He couldn't possibly be intending to give me a song-and-dance about these being "artifacts" valuable to the cultural heritage of DRC. Could he?
"Papers," he said.
I rolled my eyes.
"For what? Domestic flight. Why do I need papers?"
"Where are you going?"
He thought a minute. He had no right to demand papers anyway, given that Tintin carvings I'd bought across the river in another country were hardly DRC antiques, but he certainly had no right to tell me I could not carry these from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi.
"Where are you going after Lubumbashi?"
I thought a second. Should I lie? Where else could I possibly be going?
He looked delighted. He had me.
"This is forbidden."
"No, it's not. Why? Why would it be forbidden? These are not antiques."
"Where are the papers?"
"There are no papers. How could there be papers? I bought these in Brazzaville, not in Kinshasa. And this is Tintin. Do you know Tintin?" I couldn't help but laugh a little. "There is NO WAY Tintin carvings are antique. He's not even old enough to be antique! Do you even know what Tintin is?"
"Brazzaville?" He wavered a little, then spoke firmly. "We can settle this if you donate a little."
Months of being asked for bribes from Senegal to Congo boiled up into full-scale Marie-fury.
"ARE YOU ASKING FOR A BRIBE?" I shouted at him.
He smiled dopily. He wasn't embarrassed and no one was going to come over to reprimand him. His colleagues were asking for bribes too. Other passengers appeared to be resigned to paying.
"You should be ashamed of yourself! Don't you have any self-respect?" I was on a roll and couldn't stop myself. "Don't you understand that asking for bribes is wrong? It's called CORRUPTION. YOU ARE CORRUPT. Shame on you!"
Obviously, things would have gone easier on me if I'd given him a small tip to overlook my "infraction." And for all I know, that's how officials earn their salaries in Kinshasa's airport. Or maybe they didn't. Either way, I'd had it. I was both horrified and delighted that he'd suggested my Tintin carvings were valuable.
The supervisor came over. Now I had two men who wanted to be bribed.
The supervisor took a long look at my Tintins.
"These are dangerous. You cannot take them on board."
"Why, you think Tintin is a weapon? That is ridiculous. These are souvenirs from Brazzaville. And... I AM NOT GETTING ON THE PLANE WITHOUT THEM. I will sit here for days if I have to, I will miss the plane, you can arrest me, whatever, I don't care. Those are mine and they are coming with me."
My crimes had now transformed from antique-exporting to carrying weapons onto an airplane, but I was long past the point of useful negotiation and well into bluffing. All of this might have been more effective if I had been less capable of smirking. The situation was as absurd as it was infuriating.
"Sit over there."
He motioned me to the corner and placed my bag behind the X-ray machine.
Bad tourist. Go sit in the corner until you've learned not to yell at people asking for bribes.
Instead, I sat just the other side of the checkpoint, where I could keep an eye on my Tintins.
I stared. I glared. I didn't look away. I thought for a minute. Was I really willing to miss the plane for the sake of some cool souvenirs? Maybe not. I should have just paid the man instead of lecturing him on ethics.
The flight was called. Everyone else stood up and rushed to the glass doors. I walked to the X-ray machine and put my hand on the plastic bag containing my Tintins.
"No." The supervisor was there. He picked up the bag.
He walked to the glass doors, around the crowd, and pushed to the front of the line. He had a few words with the uniformed woman who was hand-searching every carry-on.
"You're not supposed to take these on board," she said as she began to unzip the bag. "They could be dangerous."
I thought I saw a hint of a smile pushing through when she saw what was in the bag. Perhaps, I thought, they imagined I was going to poke someone's eye out with Snowy's tail.
She nodded and handed me the bag. "Go ahead, but you've got to leave your water bottle."
"What? Oh... of course." I threw what was left of my water into the rubbish bin next to her and walked across the tarmac to the wheeled stairs to the plane. I'd won for the moment, but what about tomorrow? I'd be a sitting duck at the land border with Zambia.
I'd been eyeballing the cheap Zambian airline fare from Lubumbashi to Lusaka, but hadn't committed yet. Such a short journey by land... but also not much money to fly. And I doubted they had the ability to X-ray luggage at Lubumbashi's airport. In fact, I was completely certain they'd only do hand-searching, and the airport check-in luggage search would be less intense than the land border search.
I'd have to examine my luggage, see if I could pack my Tintins inside my rucksack. Surely there was a way.
As the plane lifted up out of Kinshasa and over the dense green interior, I had a thought.
I am going to smuggle my Brazzaville Tintins out of Democratic Republic of Congo, one way or another...
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