Monday, June 02, 2008

The DRC

Congo had been nice, but our departure definitely showed just how big a mess the country really is. First we had to wait 5 days in Brazzaville for the vehicle ferry to cross the river to Kinshasa in the DRC. On the day of our departure we had to wait in the loading area for a while waiting for the boat and in that time we could see the worst official brutality we've ever seen in any country. There were tons of police in the port area, with many different types of uniforms (and power most likely), but what they all had in common was some sort of weapon (stick, whip, belt) and a sadistic desire to hit people with it. It was truly disgusting. They just stood along the unloading corridors or roaming the dirty street hitting people at random. We never could figure out why, other than for crowd control and for instilling fear in the population so people would keep moving quickly. They spared no one. Women holding children, young girls, the old, and even the blind, who are used as porters (which amounts to little more than just pack horses being led around by a minder) were beaten. We saw guys get singled out and have their shirts ripped off while being thrown against walls. We were lucky we were hiding in our vehicles, though it was hard for a few members of our group to just sit by and watch all this going on. Of course there is nothing we could do anyway. We did see one well-dressed local guy tell off one of the cops and the cop actually backed down after threatening, no doubt because the rule one the street out here is that the richest man wins and since the local was well dressed, he may be someone of influence and therefore untouchable. There were plenty of others to beat down anyway. In the end, after all the days of waiting and all the chaos at the port, the ferry left with only 3 trucks besides ours, well under half full. We were happy to leave Brazzaville, though I must admit that we were extremely lucky with the place we'd been staying. Olivier, the French manager of the hotel is the nicest guy ever and let us stay for 6 nights free, letting us camp in the rec room (so we played lots of pool), use the internet free and even gave mom a room and birthday cake for her birthday, A huge thanks to him.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the scariest destination of the route after Nigeria and one none of us was looking forward to at all. We'd hoped to pass through as quickly as possible as there is very little you can do anyway without getting yourself into trouble. Kinshasa, the capital is directly opposite the river from Brazzaville and is one of the biggest and most dangerous cities in Africa. People are routinely refused entry even when in possession of a valid visa and it is still technically undergoing a civil war, though that is in the east of the country. The Congo river was not as wide as I was expecting and we were lucky enough to have a nice crew and guards on the ferry in that they let us take photos of the river and cities while sailing. The river is considered a strategic point and photos are not normally allowed. Indeed, any photos in the DRC can get you in big trouble. I have heard a few stories of people being arrested for taking photos in public, even when they had permission from the people they were photographing! Thus, every photo we have of the DRC was snuck from deep in the car or some other way to avoid any notice. Even then it was difficult and most didn't turn out very well. During the crossing I remember thinking that the Congos both had had civil wars recently and I was between them, but it would've been strange it they'd been at war with each other and just shelling each other's capital from across the river. Kinshasa had by far the bigger skyline and more visible signs of wealth from where I was standing.
Our goal had been to get through the border as fast as possible and get out of Kinshasa immediately and get somewhere safer to stay. It just never happens that way though, The DRC port was much more organized in that the people were all forced to funnel through caged off walkways down to the boats so we didn't see as many people milling about or getting beaten directly in the customs area. Kees decided to act as the official translator and spent about 4 hours with immigration getting our passports stamped. The rest of us were lucky we didn't have to deal with it as Kees' stories were not pleasant. Of course the officials stall and delay looking for any excuse to deny you or extract a "fine". In the end, Kerry had to pay one because he was trying to switch from a Hong Kong to a British passport (a dumb idea at this particular border post if you ask me) and they told him he was going to have to go back to Congo. Of course he can't go back so Kees just flat out asked if he could pay for a stamp to get in. The official, apparently acted shocked and said "such a thing is impossible because that would be illegal, however, if he would like to pay a fine, something can be done". These people never cease to amaze me..... While all that was going on Ben and Patrick had to deal with some health and safety guys that wanted to charge an outrageous amount to sanitize the cars. In the end they managed to talk that one down by saying they would do it themselves with their own cleaner. The officials speak French so obviously couldn't read Patrick's big fancy bottle of pink hand sanitizing wash, so it was approved and they sprayed a little on the tires and were done. What a joke. We heard that the couple that came the day after us (we keep running into them every few days at the bottlenecks in the route) just ran through without even bothering. After 5 hours on the DRC side and a couple hours (and a few days) getting through on the Congo side, we were finally released into the wild of Kinshasa just before sunset, forcing us to spend a night there. I'm not sure what I was expecting exactly but from the stories people tell each other, we were sort of expecting something akin to having to roll up the windows, lock the doors, and drive through the city as fast as possible while local mobs armed to the teeth jumped all over us; basically apocalypse incarnate. In Brazzaville we'd also met a Belgian couple that had driven though from Zambia (that is the ultimate hardcore trip ever and took them 2 months) and they said the DRC was the most corrupt and unfriendly country ever, so that didn't boost our confidence much either. While it wasn't quite the apocalypse, in a lot of ways it wasn't too far off. It is very dirty and partly destroyed (not the worst I've seen though) but there is a huge police and military presence and in the centre everything is surrounded by high walls and lots of barbed wire. Wire on top of the wall and often at the base as well. The people are surprisingly well dressed but you can tell that this is not a happy place. Overall there weren't as many people on the streets as we expected and they didn't take much notice of us either really.
We were lucky in having a policeman guide us to the fancy Grand Hotel as a place to stay. We couldn't've picked a worse night really because it was the first night of a big international conference so the place was full of security and the parking lot full of cars from the UN, WTO, and international leaders. You can imagine they weren't too impressed to see us bums roll in begging to sleep in the parking lot that night. In the end, because it was Kinshasa, Ben had to splurge on a room and the rest of us were allowed to set up camp in the far end of the far lot where security could watch over us. We left early the next morning for the 7 hour drive to Matadi. No problem there and surprisingly no police check posts, just lots of freight trucks on a narrow winding road (still no jungle, just hilly grassland) and a flat tire due to overheating. Matadi is now the only place on the south-bound route to get an Angolan visa but the officials at the consulate were the biggest power-tripping bastards of all time. I think they dragged their feet extra slow just for us because we had tried to get a full tourist visa through 2 other embassies which had contacted them. They weren't about to budge though and we only got a 5 day transit visa, just like everyone else, except we got it a little slower so had to wait around the entire day (8:30 to 5pm) and get yelled at at the end about how we were taking all of their time. Ah, the fun of African bureaucracy.
We had to spend 2 nights in Matadi. It wasn't too bad, a relatively friendly hilly city but really I can't say I was overly impressed with the DRC or it's people and can’t imagine going back any time soon. The villages we passed often seemed less than enthusiastic and happiness is in short supply generally. On our way out of the DRC Kees once again proved just how crazy he is. At the turn off for the dirt road to the border there was a boy selling a monkey in a cage, the only monkey we’ve seen in ages. To cut the story short, there was a point where I was standing outside on the road talking to Patrick when I see Kees come driving down the road holding the monkey cage out the window and half the village chasing after him. He didn’t bother to stop and pick me up so I could only hope the people weren’t out for blood with me standing out in the open. I guess the animal cruelty and Savannah’s encouragement got to Kees because he temporarily stole the monkey and made the guy chase him for a while to get it back but the locals were actually laughing pretty hard while running after him so it ended up ok.
Ammon

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