Monday May 6: The Airport
Terri and I left early in the morning to fly to Kananga from Lubumbashi. We had planned to leave at about 11am, but we got a call that the time of the flight had changed—for some unknown reason—and we had to leave much earlier. So we left home about 6am to go to the Airport. We later discovered that we had a special guest aboard the flight—his Excellency, the president of the Congo. As we sat on the plane waiting to leave, a ‘new’ group arrived—a small entourage with heavy security, and a film crew! After the door closed, and the announcements began, they included a special welcome to ‘his Excellency’(President Joseph Kabila). We didn’t realize they called him ‘Excellency’, nor that he took commercial air to fly… Oh, and the other last minute change? Instead of flying directly to Kananga, we were now flying to Kinshasa!
We were traveling with the Assistants to the President. Pres. McMullin was flying to Kananga from South Africa, through Kinshasa (he had a mission president seminar in Johannesburg). Going through the airport here is always a unique experience—never the same twice. Here is the normal procedure:
1. Pay an entrance fee into the airport parking: $10 US plus about 2,500 francs
2. Park (not a problem—few cars around).
3. Pay someone to take your baggage into the airport terminal. As you pull up, up to ten people gather around shouting and motioning, all trying to get your attention, and your business. It is just the beginning of the chaos that is the airport! Fortunately, the Church has a ‘friend’ at the airport that helps missionaries through the entire process. I would like to take pictures, to show you the madness, but it is prohibited…by men with guns.
4. There is ONE small door everyone must go through to get in, guarded by a man in uniform. He looks you over, and decides whether or not he will let you in (I have seen him turn people away, and am not sure why…unless it is his way of getting a bribe). Once again it is chaos as people move forward, pushing and shoving to try to get into the terminal—people shouting and arguing with the guard to let them in, and shouting even louder if he doesn’t! For some reason the scene reminds me of when the US left Vietnam—the chaos of everyone pushing and shoving and yelling to get on the last flight out of the country. There seems to be such an urgency and anxiety in the air…even though everyone already has their tickets, and they are simply processing you through to get on the plane!
5. Once into the terminal, you stop at a desk so they can look at your luggage—which is all they actually do: look at it! They don’t open it, or touch it, just look at it, then tell you it is OK to go onto the next station. There is no ‘line’, as such to wait in—everyone just crowds and pushes towards the front to get their bags looked at so they can move on to the next ‘line’ that isn’t a line.
6. Next you wait in line to purchase a ‘GO’ pass from a window in an office to the right. It is simply a tax to permit you to fly that day, costing $10 per ticket (we saw something similar on Saipan and Tinian, where they had a ferry tax—you had to pay a tax BEFORE you went to another window to pay for your actual ferry ticket). Again, the trick in the Congo is to realize that if you are not aggressive and move forward, someone else will (as though there were a finite number of taxes to be paid?), and you will simply remain stationary, set in place, as the others in the crowd flow around you…
7. The next station is a window in a large glass and steel wall separating you from the inner part of the terminal. After going through the same pushing and shoving to get to this window, you show them your paperwork, and they formally ‘inspect’ all of your luggage. After taking your paperwork, they permitted ONE person into the glass enclosed section to move all your baggage through one small door in the glass wall, and over to the left, behind the window, where a man at a table opened and inspected all luggage. Getting through this door is often like getting through the first door—only if you pay a bribe, or he likes your face, or you somehow just push through without him noticing (remember the chaos). After opening the luggage and inspecting, the luggage was closed and a yellow tag was placed on the bag, and moved on to the weight station, along with all of your paperwork (tags, stickers, tickets, etc.). The one person then followed the bags to the weight station.
8. In the meantime, everyone else in the group waited outside the glass enclosure for… well, not sure what we were waiting for…but at some point we must go through the same door as the luggage and into the terminal. We filed one at a time through the small door in the glass wall, guarded by a man in uniform, but this time we did not have to give a bribe to get through the door….this day we just went through.
9. Once through, we pushed our way over by the luggage area and we waited for our luggage to be weighed and processed…to find out that they wanted EVERYTHING weighed—even our carry-on bags. So we passed all our bags into a roped-in area where they were weighing baggage. I have no idea how they kept track of the bags—other than having someone follow the bags through the entire process to ensure the bags were processed correctly. At some point, after ALL the bags had been weighed and tagged (bags under the plane had one tag, carry-ons had a different tag), we got our carry-on bags back, and our tickets. I often think we will never get our paperwork back, and we will be stuck forever in that room…
10. That done, we were permitted to move into the actual waiting area where we would wait for our plane to arrive, and we would depart. To the right of the baggage weighing area was a small hall leading into another section of the building. In that hall were two more ‘stations’ we had to pass through. The first station was security where they checked your ID/passport. ALL the information on your ID/passport was written down in a log book, by hand, and the security officer peered at you through a glass wall with a small hole in it, occasionally asking questions. Even though they are permitted, the security guard did not like to people to use personal identity cards or driver’s licenses—he wanted passports. Our missionaries had simple ID’s. The female officer began a short argument as to why she should NOT pass them through with these IDs…but after giving us dirty looks, she finally gave us the go ahead to move to the next station.
11. After receiving your ID/passport back you moved down the hall to the next station where military personnel checked your passport again, and checked your ticket. Although this was perhaps the easiest check-point, it is always nerve-wracking to have people with guns looking you over.
12. Finally, we were permitted into the waiting room, with chairs, to wait for the plane to arrive. It was a large white room, with a glass wall towards the runway, filled with white plastic chairs. We sat and waited to listen for our flight to be called. This should have been easy, as there are not too many flights going in and out of Lubumbashi! The real trick now was to try to hear/understand the announcements on the overhead speakers. Think: listening for an announcement at a fast-food drive through, and then add Congo French…
13. When our plane arrived, we still had a few hoops to go through. Keep in mind that all boarding is through the old-style stairs—no covered walkways or moving jet ways—and if it is raining, tough luck. A man in uniform checked your ticket one more time to make sure we were on the right plane, then we were casually directed down various walkways until you get just on the edge of the airport runway, where two tables are set-up for inspection of personal items. Keep in mind that our carry-ons had been weighed, but not necessarily inspected. So now they inspect the carry-on luggage—out in the open air. Two tables, because there are two lines, one for men and one for women.
14. After passing the luggage inspection, you are then frisked/scanned by someone. Not sure how effective this is, as EVERYONE ‘beeped’ while being scanned, but nothing else was done, nor further inspections, or questions asked…
15. Finally, you are directed to walk out onto the runway, often around another plane, to get to the stairway and board the airplane.
16. There are no reserved seats, and, depending upon the number of passengers, they seem to try to balance the plane, as they direct you where to sit (sort of), but you can sit anywhere.
17. In most cases, you get a drink and food of some kind in flight. For example, a soda and a sandwich that consisted of a small bun with some kind of cheese in it…
18. As mentioned, we first flew to Kinshasa. When we arrived, everyone waited until ‘his mExcellency’ got off. Although we were continuing on, we had to leave the plane and board a special bus. Terri and I almost got lost… we followed most people (who were staying in Kinshasa) onto a bus headed to the terminal. At the last minute, one of the AP’s heard someone say something about those going to Kananga staying, so we quickly left the bus again, and stood with a small group of people out in the middle of the tarmac. Finally, another bus came up an took us to a waiting area, were directed to sit in a special area, and were later put on a separate bus to go back to the same plane, when it was ready to leave again.
19. Exiting the airplane, you are confronted with a myriad of places you could go—people are going everywhere. Just think of the same chaos, just in reverse…Fortunately, we had a ‘helper’ on this end of the flight also, who greets us and takes us to an official’s office, where they take our passports and paperwork and begin the laborious job of hand writing down in a notebook all the information.
20. In the meantime, someone is waiting/looking for our luggage. The room to receive luggage is small, and barely large enough to fit all the people—add to that the luggage, the noise, the constant pushing and shoving for position…
21. After some time, we are released, and can go outside where a car was waiting. After some further time waiting, those who were ‘fighting’ to get our luggage, won, and we were able to pay our helper, and head off to our hotel.
The hotel was pretty nice, considering it was one of the few in town, but VERY expensive: $200 a night! Now, this would have been a $50-$60 in the states—electricity was poor (and they seldom turned on their generator), water came and went (no hot water at all, and that meant the toilets would not work either…), and an adequate, but not too fancy accommodations—think Motel 6.
They did have internet, when the power was on, and they did have a flat screen TV with several channels (3-4 Chinese channels, 3-4 French channels, and one English channel), when the power was on. It had an air conditioner, that did not work…but it had a working window that we could open to get some fresh air. There were only the occasional bug/spider wandering around, and the quaint smell from the bathroom…well, we just shut the door.
The room came with free breakfast each morning—the same thing every day: scrambled eggs, dry bread, hard boiled eggs, papaya, and pineapple.
We don’t know if they had lunch, as we were always out and about, but dinner was the same every night: fish, pork, beef, chicken, and goat. Side dishes were French fries, fried plantains, and sometimes rice. The chicken came as a whole or a half—I got the half, which meant I got two legs, very dry and over-cooked. Didn’t order that again! The fish was ordered one night by the missionaries—looked like the dried fish one sees in the markets—glad I never tried that! The beef was OK, but very tough (and got tougher each night…). The pork was very good, but they often ran out…which was why we tried the goat—which, for me, turned out to be their best meal (who would have thought?).
They had a pool, which no one used, and a bar, which everyone used…well, the bar WAS the restaurant, after all.
The ‘bar’ where we ate at night
For the most part, it wasn’t too bad, considering where we were, and the fact that there were no other options. The price per night was a little tough to take, and they charged a lot for the meals also…a captive audience, I guess.
The staff, for the most part, were helpful and kind, and in any case, we were concentrating on our work in Kananga.
Tough life, eh?