Friday, June 6, 2008

Kinshasa: Arrival

I never thought that the Pulkovo airport would seem like a breath of fresh air, or that I would want to hug the inspector at passport control. But after the airport situation in Kinshasa, my feelings changed!

My arrival in Kinshasa was an event in itself and deserves an individual post.

Here are the instructions that I received before leaving:

"[The Protocol] is being paid to get you through the formalities of entering DRC. There are really 6 steps to the formalities:

1. Get off the plane and cross the tarmac (on foot);
2. Enter the building (often a passport control is done by uniformed officials);
3. Pass through immigration (there are several lines including one for expatriates);
4. Vaccination card control;
5. Entry into baggage claim and collection of baggage (aka, chaos);
6. Customs.

BECAUSE I AM PAYING SERAPHIN, YOU SHOULD NOT NEED TO WORRY ABOUT THE STEPS ABOVE. Seraphin just told me he'll be meeting you out on the tarmac. He will not have a uniform and others without uniforms may ask you for your passport. Make sure he has a sign with "H_____" on it before giving up your passports. He should take everyone's passport and then he'll take you immediately into a VIP lounge where you can purchase drinks, etc in dollars while you wait. It could take a little while, but don't get nervous! It's all a big game and we're paying to win. You'll wait anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or so, and then Seraphin will come get you. Your bags will already be collected.

If you get to the building from the plane and no one has greeted you with a sign with "H______" on it, just follow the steps above. I don't see any way that this could happen, but i wanted you to know the process just in case. You also shouldn't have to do anything regarding customs. But if someone asks, you're tourists and everything you're carrying is personal items (effets personnels in French). "

Here’s what REALLY happened:

After two non-eventful flights, I got off the plane looking for my guy with the gold glasses. I tried to walk slowly so he wouldn’t miss me. There were a lot of people waiting along the tarmac: some in uniform, some not. I got to the entrance to the building, and no one had approached me. I backtracked a little and tried to attract attention to myself without attracting attention to myself, if you know what I mean. No one came over. So I employed Plan B and got in the passport line, hoping that it wouldn’t go too fast and Seraphin would find me before I got too deeply involved in the process.

Then I heard someone saying my name softly with a French accent. I looked to my right and a man was calling me. He asked if I was American and showed me a sheet of paper with my first and last names handwritten on it. Well, that sort of matched the instructions, except that he hadn’t been on the tarmac and he wasn’t the same man who was supposed to meet me. I was ready to hand him my passport and let him take over, but he told me to take my place in line. Why? I thought the point of him meeting me was to not wait in line.

After the officer checked my passport, the guy (Mika) took the passport and introduced me to another guy. They tried speaking to me in French and then English and I couldn’t really understand either coming from them, but they took my passport and told me to wait. So I waited while the other people went through the lines, and Mika and his friend came over periodically to check on me. At one point Mika said “we have a leetle problem, but I’m just going to tell them that you’re here for a wedding.” Well, that WAS why I was there. I had a valid visa, so I didn’t see where they had come up with a “problem.” But they were being paid to fix that sort of thing. I still didn’t understand why I was out there and not in the VIP room.

Finally I got my passport back and was told to stand in the immigration line. The officer asked me for an address in Kinshasa, and other contact information, which I produced. Then I got my yellow fever card checked, and they seemed to stall on that too, as if they were trying to think of a reason to not let me by. One of the men met me on the other side and ushered me out an exit into the baggage claim. Once there, a man stepped forward and introduced himself as Seraphin. He didn’t have gold glasses, but said that he knew my brother. I had no choice but to trust him. I couldn’t really do anything myself.

I gave Seraphin my baggage tag and he took me outside, then inside to a lounge-perhaps, the lounge where I should have been all along. On the way there, Seraphin called my brother and had me talk to him for confirmation. Then he brought my brother into the lounge so that we could sit together while he went back for my luggage and the rest of my family, whose flight was due to arrive.

My brother was accompanied by Hortense, his bride-to-be. Meeting her was the easiest part of the whole trip! She spoke more English than I spoke French, which was good. My brother laughed at me for wearing a scarf. It was my only way to decorate my wrinkled travel outfit, but it was a little hot for scarves. I wasn't in Russia anymore.

Meanwhile, the rest of my family members were having adventures. Seraphin hadn’t been able to get out to meet them either (apparently he couldn’t get past the guards, but had friends on the other side), so they had to go through immigration as well. They had all arrived together, but somehow ended up divided into different rooms for questioning. They didn’t pay any bribes, though. Eventually, they all ended up out in the parking lot, where I met up with them. It was already dark out and we stood around discussing the confusion of who had been in what room and what had been said. I heard others rumors of a nose-bleed (before arrival in Africa), a lost money-belt, and a lost suitcase.

Some boys hovered around the car, asking for money or trying to sell us things. Finally we divided up among the cars and drove off. It was pitch-black, though it was only 8 pm, whereas in St.Petersburg the White Nights were already beginning. The electricity was out along the main road, so the lights of candles were flickering and illuminating the shops and the people who were emerging from every direction.

Later we reached the hotel where we would be staying during our trip.




To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. WOW! This is such a GOOD STORY! I feel like I'm reading a super book! Thanks for sharing all of this - I still have those dark roads and candlelit houses and shops in my eyes.

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