13 September 2012

Crossing the River to Brazzaville: An Epic 2 Mile Trip

Living in Kinshasa, one is constantly teased by the so-called "better" Congo on the opposite bank of the river. Brazzaville, capital of the other Congo, is just 2 miles across the river. We're the closest capital cities in the world. It's so close you can almost smell it. For example, when there's an explosion over there, it breaks our windows.

This map was irresistible.
 But as close as Brazza is, it's no easy task getting there. In fact, most expats don't bother. So for Adam's 30th birthday, I surprised him with a visa in his passport for that exotic vacation destination of Brazzaville. (Never mind the two-week visa costs over $80 and we were going about 2 miles away.) Pregnant with Anna├»s, we left Charlotte with Mamicho and went for a 30th birthday/last hurrah adventure.

I wanted it to be a seamless birthday getaway so I made sure there would be no surprises. I hired a protocol man to navigate us through Kinshasa's port. I asked my contact in Brazzaville what I needed to know when we arrived on their side. He said, "It's so easy. Once you get to Brazza you just step off the boat. No problems. We're not crazy like Kinshasa." I still kick myself for not recognizing these would be famous last words.

All photos courtesy of Sarah.  Except the whip and the map.  Click for links.

Of course once we arrive in Brazza, indeed a 3 minute boat ride away, we were swept into a dank office and held because we didn't bring a confirmation of our hotel reservation. They threatened to send us back. (Did I mention it cost $50 to take that 3 minute boat ride?) I was determined I could smooth talk my way out of this. I'm pregnant and pathetic. This can't be so hard...more famous last words.

Six hours later we have spent Adam's 30th birthday captive in an administrative office on a river bank in Brazzaville. We tried to bribe ourselves out with cokes and beers for everyone. I made hours of endless French small talk thinking the customs guy would just get sick of the pregnant American lady and let us go. Instead he sat at his desk for hours on end signing his name over and over on copies of the same "official" document. You know, just in case 5,000 people show up at the same time all wanting the same form.

Finally, I have no idea why, but a driver from our hotel showed up to claim us. Mr. Customs Official was sad to see us go. The rest of our time in Brazza was uneventful. It is true that Brazzaville is a totally different world. They have taxis! And pothole-free roads! And nice, affordable restaurants along the river where you can gaze at the Kinshasa skyline. Kinshasa looks so fancy from over there, all lit up at night. A true optical illusion.

I read about a little spot away from the city where you could sit along the river and drink beers. So off we went (in a taxi!) to find it. Once we arrived, it was again, a great view of the other side of the river. And then we realized that great view was of TASOK. The only thing separating us was a small stretch of river and unnavigable rapids.

After our few days in Brazza, we hopped in a boat and headed back to Kinshasa. As soon as we stepped off the dock, we were prepared to be assaulted by yet another port. The hurdle this time came in the form of a man carrying a Rotary Club styrofoam cooler (that had surely never been cold) who told me I couldn't enter without having another polio vaccine. Did I mention I was pregnant? After a minor scuffle, he let us go.

We had the misfortune of arriving back in Kin at the same time as a giant boat of imports. It takes hundreds of people to unload these boats and they do it by running with everything on their heads. Sacks the size of small cars are lifted on the heads of 5 men and they run together to unload them from the boat. Adam and I realized the only way out was through a narrow hallway full of men sprinting with these sacks on their heads. Our only option was to duck under and run with them.

As I'm crouched running (have I mentioned I'm pregnant) under a sack of who knows what, I see at the end of the hallway a man whipping people as they leave. I kid you not. There is one exit and a man is standing there recklessly swinging a whip. Beside him is a large mud puddle. At this moment I learned something very interesting about myself. When faced with the choice of stepping in a mud puddle or getting whipped, I chose to avoid the mud puddle. I remember running and thinking in my head: mud puddle? whip? mud puddle? whip? Thankfully I am married to a sane person who showed up at the car muddy.

Ah, Brazzaville. You taunt us from afar. But I'm still not sure if the trip is worth the misadventures at our respective ports.

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