Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin (and Marie)

The taxi driver dropped me off outside the security barrier at Kinshasa's airport. They all do—no one wants to pay the fee to go inside.

Traffic had been nightmarish, the road crowded and broken as drivers improvised their own alternate routes around fallen poles, mud-filled craters, and cars left for dead.

Two men were selling woven, zippered bags outside the airport. You know the kind—heavy plaid plastic that comes in different sizes. You may have used one yourself at some point en route to the laundromat.

I was thrilled to see the bag sellers—the Tintin carvings I'd purchased in Brazzaville were such odd sizes, long and thin. They didn't fit in any bag I had in my backpack.

I happily purchased a $2 zippered bag, carefully placed my two towel-wrapped Tintin canoes and one Tintin & Snowy carving into the bag, then zipped it up. I'd carry this on the plane to avoid the risk of damage in the luggage hold.

Check-in went smoothly in the cavernous dark old airport, and then I went past the security line, ignoring hints for tips.

DRC wasn't so bad, I decided. Expensive, sure. Corrupt...well, yeah. But from what I'd read, I'd expected to be put through hell first when entering the country at "the Beach," then just by existing in Kinshasa, and finally, I'd expected a kind of conflict-zone hazing greed ritual at the airport. But the worst thing I'd encountered so far was slow wifi and bad traffic.

At the gate X-ray machine, I was waved around to a table. X-ray machines often don't work or aren't turned on in central Africa. I don't know if they're just broken or if they cost too much to run.

"Open," said one of the security guys, a squat man in glasses. He motioned at my daypack.

I dutifully unzipped my bag. He gave it a perfunctory glance, saw nothing worth arguing over.

"Open," he said again, now pointing at my plastic bag.

Uh-oh, I thought, as his bored expression change to one of glee when he spotted the tail end of a carved Tintin canoe.

Hell. He couldn't possibly be intending to give me the song-and-dance about these being artifacts valuable to the cultural heritage of DRC. Could he?  

"Papers," he said.

I rolled my eyes.

"For what? Domestic flight. Why do I need papers?"

"Where are you going?"


He thought a minute. He had no right to demand papers anyway, given that Tintin carvings from another country were hardly DRC antiques, but he certainly had no right to tell me I could not carry these from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi.

"Where are you going after Lubumbashi?"

F*&ker, I thought. He's not going to lay off. 


He looked delighted. He had me.

"This is forbidden."

"No, it's not. Why? Why would it be forbidden? These are not antiques."

"Where are the papers?"

"There are no papers. How could there be papers? I bought these in Brazzaville, not in Kinshasa. And this is Tintin. Do you know Tintin?" I couldn't help but laugh a little. "There is NO WAY Tintin carvings are antique. He's not even old enough to be antique! Do you even know what Tintin is?"

"Brazzaville?" He wavered a little, then regained his footing. "We can settle this if you donate a little."

Months of being asked for bribes from Senegal to Congo boiled up into full-scale Marie-fury.

"ARE YOU ASKING FOR A BRIBE?" I shouted at him.

He smiled dopily. He wasn't embarrassed and no one was going to come over to reprimand him. His colleagues were asking for bribes too.

"You should be ashamed of yourself! Don't you have any self-respect?" I was on a roll and couldn't stop myself. "Don't you understand that asking for bribes is wrong? It's called CORRUPTION. YOU ARE CORRUPT. Shame on you!"

Obviously, things would have gone easier on me if I'd given him a small tip to overlook my small "infraction." But I was both horrified and delighted that he'd accused Tintin carvings of being valuable. I considered saying "They belong in a museum," but this would not have helped my case and he was only slightly more likely to get an Indiana Jones reference than he was to understand Tintin.

The supervisor came over. Now I had two men who wanted a bribe.

The supervisor took a long look at my Tintins.

"These are dangerous. You cannot take them on board."

"Why, you think Tintin is a weapon? That is ridiculous. These are souvenirs from Brazzaville. And...I AM NOT GETTING ON THE PLANE WITHOUT THEM. I will sit here for days if I have to, I will miss the plane, you can arrest me, whatever, I don't care. Those are mine and they are coming with me."

My crimes again humankind had now transformed from antique-exporting to carrying weapons onto an airplane, but I was long past the point of useful negotiation and well into bluffing. All of this might have been more effective if I had been less capable of smirking. The situation was as absurd as it was infuriating.

"Sit over there."

He motioned me to the corner. Bad tourist. Go sit in the corner until you've learned not to yell at people asking for bribes. 

Instead, I sat just the other side of the checkpoint, where I could keep an eye on my Tintins.

I stared. I glared. I didn't look away. I thought for a minute. Was I really willing to miss the plane for the sake of some cool souvenirs? Maybe not. I really should have just paid the man instead of lecturing him on ethics.

The flight was called. Everyone else stood up and rushed to the glass doors. I walked to the security table and put my hand on the plastic bag containing my Tintins.

"No." The supervisor was there. He picked up the bag.

"Follow me."

He walked to the glass doors, around the crowd, and pushed to the front of the line. He had a few words with the uniformed woman who was hand-searching each carry-on.

"You're not supposed to take these on board," she said as she unzipped the bag. "They could be dangerous."

She didn't laugh when she saw what was in the bag, but I thought I saw the hint of a smile pushing through. What, am I going to poke someone's eye out with Snowy's tail?

She nodded and handed me the bag. "Go ahead, but you've got to leave your water bottle."

"What? Oh...of course." I threw what was left of my water into the trash can next to her and walked across the tarmac to the stairs to the plane. I'd won for the moment, but what about tomorrow? I'd be a sitting duck at the land border with Zambia.

I'd been eyeballing the quite-cheap Zambian airline fare from Lubumbashi to Lusaka, but hadn't committed yet. Such a short journey by land...but also not much money to fly. And I doubted they had the ability to X-ray luggage at Lubumbashi's airport. In fact, I was completely certain they'd only do hand-searching, and the airport check-in luggage search would be less intense than the land border search.

I'd have to examine my luggage, see if I could pack my Tintins inside my rucksack. Surely there's a way.

As the plane lifted up out of Kinshasa and over the dense green interior, I had a thought.

I am going to smuggle my Tintins out of Democratic Republic of Congo, one way or another.

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