A new place

It doesn’t happen very often that I arrive in a new place, but this trip had two of them. My mind is swirling with first impressions. I wondered about my father’s experience some 60 years ago when he first arrived here as part of a 3 months Africa-breweries trip in 1954. I got his diary and postcards from that journey. The pictures are of a different time and place, colonial Léopoldville with its wide empty streets, clean colonial buildings, a few quaint looking buses and the occasional private car.

The company supposed to pick me up was not waiting for me as I had been told. After all that luck I could have expected some things not quite going according to plan. The Congolese were very solicitous of me, seeing that I had no one waiting fore me. I don’t think I have ever been to an airport were people were so friendly, concerned and where security was loose enough that people could act like people rather than officials assuming the worst in everyone. There was much laughing and joking. I took an instant liking this place.

Eventually my handler showed up after a friendly airport worker named Coco called his company on his cellphone. The driver had some lame and incomprehensible excuse about the delay having to do with problems with the MSH logo for the sign with my name on it. By that time traffic had picked up and the 30 kilometer ride to the hotel took another hour, adding two very long hours to my already 30 hour journey. I got my first taste of infamous Kinshasa traffic.

The first few miles after the airport is a smooth ride on a four lane highway with every 10 meters someone sweeping the sand and dirt off the road. A posted sign indicated that this was part of the Clean Kinshasa campaign. But as we got closer to the city center the roads narrowed, and the task of these cleaners got more and more overwhelming. No longer sweeping up light dust from the road, a few workers in their yellow reflective jackets had gotten the more daunting assignment to clean up an enormous pile of garbage heaped on an unpaved sidewalk with thick black sludge next to it. I think the clean-up campaign will take a while and will only make a difference is it includes educating the people so that everyone is responsible.

All along the road are the usual giant billboards of cellphone company enticing potential customers with promises of easy access to all of Africa as if it was free. In between are smaller ones from various companies competing for a dominance of the market of skin lightening products, targeting African women who believe black is not beautiful.

My hotel is quite posh, belonging to the Kempinski chain. It is situated on the banks of the wide Congo River, next to the President’s compound. I am on the 10th floor and have a nice view on this lush and green ambassadorial part of the city. The hotel was built by the Chinese. There are many Chinese business men in the restaurant making me forget for a moment I just traveled 1000s of miles from where they hail from. I could be in Ulaanbataar. Many signs are in English, French and Chinese. The gas masks in my room are exactly the same as in my Ramada room. I have never had a gas mask within reach and I wonder why now. There are no metal detectors or any other form of obvious security in this hotel (or for that matter in Ulaanbataar).

I checked in and then had breakfast, having missed all meals on the night flight as I was too busy sleeping. I wolfed down a large plate of greens, my body acting autonomously in piling salad greens on my breakfast plate rather than eggs and the more traditional breakfast fare. It is clear that I have been missing some important nutrients the last 2 weeks.

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June 2014
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