I remember hopping around between a few parties in San Diego last New Year’s Eve. It was a fun night because I got to be with so many friends in their warm and cozy homes. What a difference a year can make! Here I am in the Congo listening to repetitive party music blaring through downtown Kisangani and into my apartment. The New Year holiday is big in Congo.
I’ve had a long day. It wasn’t particularly straining but I was en route for over eight hours to make a 45 minute flight. I like airplanes and airlines and travel in general, so although the day was mostly tedious, (some boredom relief provided by C.S. Lewis and philosophy that goes right along with a lot of what I’ve been thinking about lately) I did observe some interesting things you might (or might not) want to know about air travel in Congo’s wacky skies.
- Most civil airports in Congo don’t have any metal detectors of any kind. They might have them in Kinshasa, but I have never flown out of there commercially so I don’t know.
- When you go through a “baggage check” they almost never have you open your bag but instead just overtly ask for some cash. During the holiday season the immigration people (who register domestic travelers) and health people were hustling travelers for money too. They didn’t try to ask me for any.
- The runway at Goma is partly covered with lava from nearby Mount Nyragongo. When the plane took off today they gunned the engines before releasing the brakes and took off like a drag racer to compensate for the shortened runway.
- When planes land at Goma the passengers often applaud. I think it’s funny and I join in. I’ve heard of this also happening in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
- The airplanes park in a cramped spot next to the runway and can’t get near the terminal any longer. Our 45 minute flight was delayed over an hour waiting behind the only other big jet to take off for the day. It’s silly that they are scheduled at the same time and that they have to park one in front of the other.
- Pilots leave the cockpit door open most of the time and I like being able to see out the windshield.
- Sometimes they serve glass beverage bottles in-flight. The politicians and military officers and other assorted “big men” drink large bottles of beer. The meal on a recent flight: salami sandwich wrapped in tinfoil.
- Congolese people have to pay the government a fee and carry a pass to enter the airport terminal.
- In Kisangani you have to pay for parking even if you don’t park and then you have to make it through a military checkpoint.
- It’s a good day traveling in Congo when you make it through four or five government officials or uniformed police/military and only have to give cash to one or two. Today was a good day.
The HOPE jeep wouldn’t start today after its Christmas break so I negotiated a taxi ride into town. I smelled alcohol on the breath of the first taxi man to approach me and quote me over twice the going rate. I told him his price was too high and that I couldn’t ride with a cabby who’d been drinking. He didn’t deny it and rather seemed to get a kick out of my preoccupation. The second cabby smelled sober and cut the price in half instantly when I asked him to. Sold!
There I was in the front seat and there were about five or six people piled in the back. The luggage was spilling out of the open trunk. Fortunately the side view mirrors were broken so I couldn’t even try to watch the road behind for my backpack or suitcase bouncing into the distance. A few minutes into the ride I noticed that the fuel gage was on empty and the driver was turning the engine on only to accelerate and then coasting as far as possible. This guy had his technique down to a fine art. I’m not sure if it actually saves gas this way, but there’s clearly some economic method to his madness. I whimsically considered reducing my payment to half the negotiated fare since the car was actually only running less than half of the time. We made about four stops to let out passengers, finally buy gas in liter bottles at a roadside stand (that’s how it’s done here), and to wait for someone to come pick up a plastic bag of raw beef that a passenger had in the back seat. I was privileged to witness much spontaneous jubilant dancing when one woman was dropped off. I got to meet half of her family as I sat there in the front seat. We lumbered over the potholes down main street (Ave. Mobutu) on three real tires and a puny spare and the run down old behemoth of a jungle high rise building that I call home came into view. It felt good to be home. It felt good to climb the 16 flights of stairs, unpack, and put myself down in this chair. Home again and in one piece.