Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Familiar Tone

Kinshasa's Ave Maria Hotel was just fine.

I was surprised. Kinshasa has a reputation for offering very little for a great deal of money in the way of hotel rooms. But this hotel was similar to plenty of mid-level hotels I'd been to in both East and West Africa. And the main street didn't seem all that different from main streets in East African capital cities.

I went wandering around, looking for both the crime-ridden chaos I'd been told to expect and for a ticket agent to sell me an airplane ticket so I could find my way to the southeastern tip of DRC without sitting in the back of a cargo truck for weeks.

At a supermarket, I bought some yogurt and snacks. The supermarket was air-conditioned, upscale, expensive, and sold imported goods. The shoppers were not Congolese.

When I found a travel agent, I was told to pay in US dollars. "Just go the ATM. It will give you US dollars from your home bank account."

It did.

How were the Congolese surviving here? Things were so expensive and they were pegged to the dollar.

Being in the country for all of three hours by the time I went to an ATM did not make me an expert, certainly. But there was an air about Kinshasa, an air of erratic opportunity and chance. Sure, development and aid workers were here in force, pushing up prices. But they weren't the only expats in town. There's money to be made in this-here Big Congo. To many, DRC offers opportunity. Get-rich-quick. A post-war Congolese gold rush, not only for the extracted minerals, but also for ancillary services. Who got rich in the Alaska Gold Rush, after the first few prospectors? The suppliers. The businessmen and women who saw an opportunity within an opportunity.

DRC isn't the first country to experience simultaneous development and resource-rushes. Downtown Kinshasa felt familiar, like other post-conflict zones I'd visited, but a lot bigger (and thus edgier and scarier) and with a lot more mud. Which was orange-brown downtown but black on the industrial roads around the center, black from...decomposing rubbish? Oil in the gutters? I don't know what makes mud turn black.

The travel agent offered me a few options, but none of them fit with my plan. I wanted to stay one more night so that I could go to the bonobos sanctuary. But I didn't have that option. I could fly tomorrow or in three days.

"But I can't afford to keep staying here," I said glumly.

"We have this flight, which goes through Nairobi to Zambia and costs $800."

"Er, no thanks." I just wanted the cheap internal flight, so I could skip over the roadless interior that could take up to three muddy weeks by cargo truck. I'd recently given up on the idea that I might find a way to get an Angolan visa and instead had decided to exit DRC at the Zambian border.

And once I'd gotten the idea of Zambia into my head, I couldn't wait. I could be in Livingstone in three days time! Beautiful Livingstone, comfortable Zambia, wonderful food, supermarkets with little sandwiches, and nice hotels...buses that work normally on paved roads. I was fantasizing about ShopRite sandwiches. Time to put the tough leg to an end.

Fine, I thought. No bonobos. I bought the ticket to travel to Lubumbashi in the morning.

The sun was starting to set as I hurried back towards the hotel. I stepped out into the main road at a pedestrian crossing and was surprised when traffic halted for me.

Kinshasa offered a lot of surprises.

I'm not saying Kinshasa isn't dangerous. One day in Kinshasa does not give me any concrete information. But I am saying that it seemed perfectly fine for me to walk around the main streets in daylight hours, and for people who have worked in other post-conflict zones, there is an air of familiarity, a dual economy, an air of possibility mixed with a whiff of danger, which is also exciting for some people.

And I thought back to East Timor in 2001, and the Australian soldier speaking into her walkie-talkie in a tone of heavy sarcasm.

"Yeah, I have a, uh, TOURIST here. And she wants to cross the border. Yes, a tourist."

At least in DRC, no one gave me 'tude.

1 comment:

  1. Dollar economies in the wake of peacekeeping missons. So familiar wherever they are.