Sooner or later, I had to cross the river.
The mighty Congo River separates Congo from Congo. And if you're confused, you're not alone. Big Congo has been called one or another variation on the name Congo since 1885, except for 1971-1997, when it was called Zaire. Meanwhile, Little Congo has been both Middle Congo and Republic of Congo during that time.
We differentiate like this: Congo-Kinshasa (or DRC for Democratic Republic of Congo) and Congo-Brazzaville. But not everyone in Congo-Brazzaville does this. I heard many people describe their larger neighbor like this:
And it was frequently said with a bit of disdain. Could it be that not all Congolese from Congo-Brazzaville are happy to share their name? And yet, to the rest of the world, the whole region is just the Congo, a big area on the map that represents war and poverty to us, along with the minerals that make our cell phones.
We all know that this is a gross oversimplification. But as people battle through their days, putting out proverbial fires in their local lives, there ends up not being so much time left for understanding far-away lands.
I'd read three books about DRC—Bryan Mealer's outstanding book, Jeffrey Tayler's (I'm a huge fan of his books), and one about a Tim Butcher's—and let's be honest: Big Congo scared the hell out me. Not quite as much as Nigeria had scared me, but I was still moderately concerned.
A NYC-writer acquaintance of mine, Tom, had been in Brazzaville and Kinshasa a few weeks before I was due to enter. He'd been in Brazzaville long enough to sort out how to do a few things, and he sent me instructions to ease my crossing into Kinshasa.
He'd written to me that the way to deal with the port on the Brazzaville side was to hire an expediter.
"On the Brazzaville side when you enter the port and are besieged by touts, just tell them you're there for Madame Eloie at Service Rapide and they will back off and bring her."
It didn't go quite like that, and I never met Madame Eloie, but people did direct me to her office. And while other tourists were fighting with touts and trying to decide who to trust and what the cost was, I was sitting in a dark, air-conditioned room while her staff members ran my passport past the various officials, getting stamped here and there. The cost over the price of the fare was an additional $15.
Some things are well worth the money.
Eventually, a young man came into the office and instructed me to follow him. An English-speaking DRC man headed to Kinshasa offered to help as well, as he was taking the boat. He walked along with us to the port, but he got a phone call at the top of the steep, decrepit stairs and mud that led down to the boat.
He talked for a minute and then hung up.
"I have something to take care of here. I will go on a later boat. What is your number?"
"No SIM," I lied. I don't give out my number to random people I've just met.
He wrote down his number on a slip of paper and handed it to me. "Promise to call me tonight."
This happens all the time. I find it annoying. I'm not promising anything to anyone when I have no idea what their intent is, don't even know their name.
"I might have things to do."
He again demanded I promise, at which point I lied and said "Fine, okay, I will call."
Which made me feel kind of dirty. I wasn't calling this random guy tonight in Kinshasa. Hell, I had no intention of even being outside my hotel after dark. Kinshasa hadn't suddenly become home to me in the last 20 minutes. It was still this big scary skyline looming across the river.
My escort handed my bag to a man on the speedboat, who motioned me into a seat. Some passengers put on lifejackets. I thought about it, but was too lazy and hot to bother.
The boat pulled out of Brazzaville and into the open river, where it sped up and headed to Kinshasa. I looked back at Brazzaville, the sleepy, friendly city where I could safely wander the streets and chat with pygmies. And then up ahead was the unknown.
I'd heard that the port in Kinshasa, called the "Beach," was chaotic and overwhelming. That I might have to hang onto my money. That it might be tough to find a taxi.
So I looked up an inexpensive guesthouse near the port. A place you could walk to. But I couldn't find a way to book it online, so I just crossed my fingers—even knowing of Kinshasa's high hotel occupancy rate—and hoped for the best.
I changed money with a money changer in the hall—useless, as it turns out. Not only can we use US dollars in Kinshasa, but some of the town's ATMs spit out crisp US hundred-dollar bills.
My name was called last, and I was shuffled into the small office full of women in uniforms. Many details were laboriously copied down, I was sent to another office and back, then was stamped into DRC.
Just like that. The most expensive visa I'd ever bought was used and I was in.
Suspiciously easy, I thought.
I walked out of the port and past the hustle and bustle of passengers and exporters. Busy (muddy) port, busy city, Africa's second-largest country, now that Sudan has split into two. There were a lot of people going about their business. I put on my non-smiling concentrating face and—by foot through the mud—made a beeline for the entrance to the port area.
"Taxi?" Ah, so there were taxis here after all. I shook my head and walked to the guesthouse. It wasn't as close as I'd hoped and, with my backpack, I was pretty hot by the time I got there to find out that the there was no room at the inn.
I was information-challenged here. I had memorized the basics from a few online maps but the only guidebook I had to Congo was back in J.C. Michael Kraiger had scanned me some pages that were on my laptop, and I had a few names of hotels from there, but many hotels were full.
A man who takes photos and tries to sell them to people was by the guesthouse gate.
He looked at the slip the guesthouse receptionist have given me, on which she'd listed the name of another church's guesthouse. I shook my head no. I wasn't going there. I wanted to go to the Fontana, which had turned into Ave Maria Hotel. It was a mid-range hotel, a hard thing to come by in Kinshasa.
"Do you know where I can get a taxi?"
"Taxi? You don't need a taxi," said the man. "You can walk. It isn't far. Here, I'll show you."
He escorted me up the block to a large supermarket. We zig-zagged around it to the main drag, Kinshasa's busy main street.
"See? Just cross the street and walk down that road."
I thanked him, but not as profusely as I might have. I was sweating and exhausted by now, regretting having waved off the taxi driver at the Beach.
I walked down a muddy sidestreet, tip-toeing around massive puddles that took up most of the road. With my bag, I was a public hazard, and I'd have to wait for others to walk single-file across the highest land point in the puddles before taking the water on myself.
Where was that damn hotel?
I gave up and stopped to ask a woman selling colorful wax-print cloth.
She pointed at a large building and laughed a little. Silly tourist. It's right there.
Red but giggling, I headed in.
Ave Maria had room. This was one of the most expensive rooms I'd had on this trip, but Kinshasa is no bargain. I was lucky to find one so cheap.