Administrator

Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

The Brave Warrior in West Africa 6 – Dernier jour à Paris

In Travels on February 1, 2013 at 9:10 am

 

A Brave Warrior is trained from birth, possibly even in the womb, not to show too much outward sign of emotions, positive or negative. The Mongols called it the ‘cold face’.

So, in delight of having obtained my visa for Congo in just 20 minutes, I avoid skipping lightheartedly down the street, swinging from lampposts, or doing a wonderful impression of Gene Kelly in the musical ‘An American in Paris’. But inside, I am extremely relieved. With my aches and pains, the thought of having to come back to Central Paris tomorrow was not a great motivator.

I decide as I am near, and in fact can see a part of it at the top of the road, to walk to the Place de l’Etoile. This is the famous circle where the Arc de Triomphe is situated. There are some 12 major avenues leading into and out of it. Only a Frenchman can take delight at driving into this major Paris landmark. As I walk around the edges, I realise just how massive the Place de l’Etoile really is. Probably outside of Tien an Men Square in Beijing, I’ve never seen a bigger ‘carrefour’. The Arc has a giant French tricolore hanging from the middle.

There is also a Mauritian connection… On the walls is a plaque commemorating the (only) French Napoleonic naval victory against the British. This took place in 1810 and is known as the battle of Grand Port, situated just north of Mahebourg. The French soundly defeated the attack of General Pym, although it must be said that they surrendered the whole island to the overwhelming British forces within a few weeks. This reminds me of an interesting incident on Google some time back where entering the search item “French Military Victories|” yielded the response: “Your search did not match any documents. Did you mean ‘French military defeats?

As I consider this singular moment in French naval history, I can’t help but think of my recent visit with my mother to the truly magnificent Chateau de Versailles. There is an entire wing there dedicated to famous French military victories, with an imposing gold engraving at the entrance declaring “A toutes les gloires de la  France”. What struck me then and does so again, is how a nation has somehow managed to salvage glory out of so many abject defeats. Going back all the way to Vercingetorix against Caesar (52 BC); 7 battles, including Crecy against the English in 1345-1347; Agincourt (1415), Blenheim (1704); Quebec City (1759); Trafalgar (1805); Waterloo (1815); the siege of Paris (1870); Hitler bypassing the ‘impenetrable’ Maginot Line for the battle of France in 1940; Dien Bien Phu (1954); the nation has known calamitous defeats, yet they can still build magnificent monuments to ‘All the Glories of France’! Without being too biased here, the Brave Warrior code of impartiality does require that I mention that in 1066 Guillaume of Normandy, known to us a William the Conqueror, was the last foreigner to invade England successfully. There is also that famous battle involving the Marquis de la Fayette in the North American revolutionary war that turned the tide against the British, thereby resulting in the creation of the USA. So, the French have also won some world changing battles as well! So much for the history lesson…

Before disappearing underground into the Metro, I am privileged to take in the truly magically beautiful sight of the Champs Elysées lit up with the Christmas lights. They don’t call Paris ‘Ville Lumière’ for nothing.

After a very long day, a very tired Brave Warrior finally gets home. Dinner, seated next to a roaring fire with (Youngest) daughter no.3 and new Son-in-law, at a fine restaurant in the woods rounds off the soirée very nicely indeed.

Friday morning is spent on Skype with various people in Mauritius, before I realise with a start that I have a business appointment in Central Paris. One of the companies I advise has asked me to meet with a potential supplier of Turkish dried fruits and nuts. Rush to Central Paris once again; spend an interesting hour learning all about French Levantine traders in Turkey.

What is more fascinating is the fact that the gentleman I am talking to is actually a Mauritian, married into the Franco-Turkish Pagy family who have been trading products from the ancient city of Smyrna (Izmir) for the past 270 years. How likely is it that from all the companies I could have approached? Would you believe that a month ago, I travelled to Saarbucken in Germany to visit a Christian publishing house. The lady I had been dealing with turns out to be a Mauritian from Rose Hill, who listens to our live broadcasts on Nuradio from Trianon every Sunday. I wonder if there is something afoot in all this? All I need now is to meet a couple of Mauritians in Africa…

As duty calls, I also have to go the Angolan Embassy. It is only to check out if it is possible to get a visa quickly to fly to Luanda when I get back from Ivory Coast next week. Of course, the embassy is located on one of the prime luxury addresses of Paris at 19 Avenue Foch. There is probably no better location in Paris. It is cold and wet as I make my way past the large properties on this wide avenue.

I enter the gate and see a massive 4-story ‘hotel’ as they are known here. To my left is a gatehouse that is larger than my apartment back home. There is space to park and manoeuvre at least 25 cars in the courtyard. A smart suited gentleman comes out and looks at me questioningly before informing me that this is the Embassy. The consulate is located some distance away near the Parc Monceau. One has to wonder what they do in this large building that they need another one elsewhere just for passports and visas.

On arrival at the consulate at 13:15, a few minutes before closing time, I am greeting by 4 extremely bored looking ladies who hand me a form and instruction sheet. One tells me that a visa takes between 15 and 21 days, as the file has to be sent to Luanda. I explain my particular circumstances, and she disinterestedly tells me to tell all that to the ‘man’ who will be there shortly. I sit outside in the waiting room listening to a group of bike couriers exchange ‘war’ stories. It seems the chappie can come downstairs at any point between 14:00 and 15:00, which sounds very promising indeed. After 40 minute or so, I approach the desk again, wanting to know when ‘Monsieur’ will be down. She tells me: “He will!” Because I don’t move, she sniffs and deigns to ring his office before telling me curtly that he will be only a few more minutes.

Just before 14:30, a young dude complete with leather jacket makes an appearance. His arms are loaded with passports. The couriers seem to know him well. His name, strangely for a Portuguese speaking Angolan, is Elton… My latest good friend Elton tells me that anyone seeking a visa must come in person to submit the application. The delay is usually around 15 days with no guarantees. I explain my circumstances – that I can hardly spend 2 weeks in Paris waiting for a visa – and am told that I should try London if I think it might faster. I ask about South Africa; he has no clue how it works there. I speak about SADC or COMESA countries; he doesn’t seem to have heard of these either. Conclusion: it is highly unlikely that I could decide on a whim to pop off to Angola.

It is dark and cold and wet as the Brave Warrior wraps up his tour of African embassies. Despite still dragging a cold and the associated aches and pains, he must still go to a dinner with some French ladies to discuss a project for CTMI Media. A pleasant Parisian evening later, he heads home to pack his bags.

I have to leave for the airport at 7am for my flight to Brazzaville tomorrow.

 

The Brave Warrior in West Africa 5 – Expect the unexpected!

In Travels on January 30, 2013 at 9:01 am

Expect the unexpected!

Thursday dawns very early for the Brave Warrior. He has some major transport logistics to achieve. Dear Wife is coming through Paris on her way to London. An aunt has fallen seriously ill and the family are gathering to be there for her. It is also a special surprise for firstborn grandson as he gets to join his Dadu on this expedition, without knowing where we are going or why.

We leave home in the dark at 7 am, and I quickly realise that my timing is likely to be thrown out quite a bit. He simply cannot walk as fast as me on his little legs. Whatever the case, we plough on in the bitterly cold darkness. First it’s RER to Gare Montparnasse, then Paris Metro to Denfert-Rochereau, where we connect with another RER service going all the way to Roissy-CDG. Firstborn grandson is loving the experience and keeps asking how many stations before we get ‘there’…

Finally, after almost 2 hours we pull into the modernistic railway station at the CDG. Outside it is very foggy. We’ve received a SMS informing us that Granny has had to move while they blow up some poor person’s abandoned suitcase where she is waiting for us. I cannot imagine what that feeling must be for someone to discover his bag and contents are now in over a million waterlogged bits and pieces, and smelling of explosives.

Firstborn grandson is so excited to be at the airport that seeing his Granny (and her, seeing him) is a complete surprise. A great reunion takes place – Granny has been with him in France for most of the past 7 months – before we move off to have a hearty and healthy breakfast at Macdonald’s. That done, we wait for the AF ‘Car’ which will take us right across to South East Paris to Orly Airport. When we get there, we have to wait for a while before Granny can check in. Before leaving firstborn grandson makes sure that Granny is very clear that he is expecting her to come ‘to my house in Paris’ when she has finished in London. We say goodbye to Granny. From Orly, we take a high-speed tram link before waiting twice for over 20 minutes in the cold at various stations and returning to Chaville. Firstborn grandson is delighted with the complete experience of the Paris transport system, but is completely exhausted.

After dropping him off at home, the Brave Warrior does not dally. After all, there are African embassies to be tackled. I arrive 30 minutes late for my ‘appointment’ with a thought that I really hope that my visa is actually issued; that there isn’t another Ivorian step in the process. On arrival in Africa (102 Rue Poincaré), I hand my receipt to Mr. Efficient who tells me to wait in a queue. Before too long, Mr. Smooth Senior Executive comes out with my passport, asking me to check the dates. I try to explain that next year, I expect to have to organise visas for a delegation and do they really need to spend almost an extra week in Paris to get a visa in person. His reply is that they need the fingerprints, but the Consulate could exceptionally speed up the process – from 4 days to 3 days. Very helpful indeed!

By this time, it’s late afternoon. I’m not sure that I can even get to drop off my passport at the Congo Embassy before it closes. I walk around the corner – it seems that the former African colonies decided the buy up the whole area, as every third building is an African embassy or consulate. Now, it is not in the make up of a Brave Warrior to worry, or even to be concerned.  Possibly a slightly raised left eyebrow might indicate anticipation of a challenge to be faced. So, full of self-assurance and in total confidence, he enters the Congolese Embassy… only to be told the Consulate is in another building around the corner.

At the Congolese Consulate, no one is pretending to be super hi-tech efficient. Everything is a bit messy and tatty and the lady at the cash desk takes (all) my documents and says she will see if it is possible to issue a same-day express visa, costing an extra €50 over the usual fee of €60. She tells me to wait, which I do, expecting to be told to return late tomorrow (Friday) afternoon to collect my passport and visa. This is cutting it a bit fine for my early Saturday morning departure, but we are in Africa after all…

20 minutes later, she calls me over and, without a word flings my passport to me on the counter. My first reaction is that there is a problem. Very likely, someone must have reported the hissy fit I threw in Brazzaville airport in 2000, when a customs official tried to confiscate my foreign currency. But, no, I have a visa in my passport. Who could believe it? After all the travails with the Ivory Coast, little disorganised and bureaucratic Congo has managed to do the same thing in less than 1% of the time.

What can a Brave Warrior say or do in the face of such efficiency? Expect the unexpected? Maybe the best answer is “Africa wins again!”

The Brave Warrior in West Africa 3 – WAWA!

In Travels on January 25, 2013 at 8:49 am

When I lived in Africa in the good old days, one would often hear expatriates of various nationalities talk about the continent and its people condescendingly. I am sure I must have joined in from time to time. But I consider this in the same way that one defines a pessimist: an optimist with real-life experience!

Without digressing further, each nationality would say with great vehemence and assurance that Africa begins at: Calais (British); Lille (Belgians); Lyon (French); Rome (Italians); Lisbon (Portuguese): South of Madrid (Spanish). I am sure you can spot the pattern here. Basically people living in the south of their home countries were prone to the more relaxed, laid back, manana lifestyle that one associates with Africa.

It is now more than 20 years since I left the continent as a full time resident. My regular forays into Africa since those times have not really convinced me that, organisationally speaking, things have changed for the better. So you can imagine my extremely pleasant surprise to see that Ivory Coast issued biometric visas, and much of the tedious procedure could be completed online. So, last Thursday evening in my bed in Mauritius, I set about completing the online formalities.

Two hours later, I had paid for the cost of the visa, generated a fixed time slot interview the following Monday in Paris. Not being completely computer literate, I somehow messed up the actual application form. No problem, I could do this tomorrow morning… Another hour online at the office on the day of my departure, and with a colleague’s help, saw the application, complete with uploaded photo, duly filled in. Why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to know the names and ages of my children remains a mystery, but I can accept that the needs of information and technology are manifold and require the submitting of such trifling additional details. I also prepare all the key documents requested – original of Birth Certificate, Medical Insurance, Hotel Reservation, Invitation Letter, Air Ticket, and Yellow Fever Vaccination certificate. I was a little surprised (and disappointed, I might add) they had not asked for my school leaving certificate or my rather impressive CV!

Of course, even trying to get information about a visa from Congo Republic embassy proved impossible. So, I therefore work on my good friend Laurent’s maxim in life: If you can’t convince them, confuse them! Photocopies of my Mauritian ID, CEB bill, plus everything else asked for by Ivory Coast. The Brave Warrior will arrive in Paris ready for any request…

Monday morning, I wake up bright and early (actually it’s dark and 5:45 am). My computer-generated appointment is at 10:30 am in Central Paris. I am no.13 in that 20-min time slot. It is seriously cold when I head up the hill to Chaville Rive Droite SNCF station. Hanging around waiting for the train is not much fun either. I arrive at the Embassy in good time and within seconds realise that all the sophisticated electronic process is all smoke and mirrors; a mirage, totally misleading! We are channelled downstairs into a dingy room with paint peeling off the walls. An arrogant officer is hiding his condescension behind a veneer of weak paternalistic humour. The whole room is chaotic. People are shoving and pushing, loudly; others (Africans) are complaining about being given fixed appointments online and then having people get ahead of them. The officer calls for silence then explains to us that we must “forget all that stuff we did online”… We are informed that all we need are a few key documents; to simply forget the rest. For a moment, I am gobsmacked, speechless! There I was, so concerned about the fact that I had a copy of my Birth Certificate, but had omitted to take the original. After stapling a photo, over the electronic photo on the downloaded form, we are then given a scrap of paper with a number and told to go back upstairs.

Of course, upstairs is where everyone walks in, so there is real confusion, as newcomers have to realise that they need a session downstairs with Mr. Comic before they can join the real queue. A second official also pretending to be efficient checks our documents. He asks me for the number of children I have; checks if I am OK to be described as male (‘you never know these days’, he whispers); we hit a wall in all this amiable discourse when he wants to know when I’m leaving Paris. Try as I might, Mr. Efficient refuses to understand that I am travelling to Abidjan from Brazzaville, that I have just come from Mauritius. The tone hardens, he raises his voice to tell me in words of 1 syllable that the visa is issued in Paris and comes into effect when I leave France. I shrug my shoulders and confess I don’t have the Paris–Brazzaville ticket with me, but that it is on my laptop and can be viewed. Who would have thought that one needed to show them a Paris-Brazzaville ticket to conform to the strict requirements of a visa for Ivory Coast?

After scribbling something illegible on my application, I join the final queue waiting actually to hand in the pile of documents. Moving inside, I am shouted at from behind a thick glass panel by a not too polite, or very feminine, lady of a certain age. Immediately she picks up on her colleague’s scribbling. She sighs, before calling a more senior personage over who wants to know when I am leaving France, and why I’ve asked for a visa for a date after I leave Paris. Gritting my teeth, I explain the apparently strange notion that I am not travelling directly to Abidjan.
Mr. Senior Smooth Executive takes a while to grasp this weird 21st century concept made possible by airplanes criss-crossing Africa. With a flourish he writes on my form “Appointment Thursday 15:30!” We are Monday morning, for goodness sake… I still have to get a visa from Congo. Of course, they don’t want to know anything and I complete the biometric part of the application by putting my fingers of each hand and then thumbs together on the scanner. I am now convinced that Mr. Allasane Ouattara (the President) must know of my case personally.
As I walk out of the embassy, 3 thoughts assail me:
1. A former friend and colleague said to me in all sincerity back in 1980: “In 150 years nothing will have changed here.” I can attest to the truth of that assessment: certainly very little has changed in the first 32 years. But who knows? There’s hope yet. We’ve got another 118 years to go!
2. I realise with a flash of inspirational brilliance that I’ve finally discovered where Africa begins… It’s at 102 Rue Poincaré, Paris XVI; at the Ivory Coast Embassy!
3. Another expression that floated around back in those good old days was “WAWA’. I can certify that West Africa Wins Again!

The Brave Warrior in West Africa 2 – Le weekend Parisien!

In Travels on January 23, 2013 at 8:45 am

Airplane seat technology has greatly improved over the past few years. It is now possible lean your head on an adjustable head rest instead of looking decidedly strange with one of those blow-up thingies around your neck that look like a child floating ring that won’t go down past your shoulders.

The AF seating space is so cramped that my pillow is actually a discomfort, but somehow I manage to nod off and nod back awake again at regular intervals. Soon it is morning over Paris and we come in to land at CDG in the dark. Being such a VIP on AF, my case is one of the first ones off. I manoeuvre through the crowds and take the long walk from terminal 2E to 2B to catch the AF ‘Car’ into Paris.

The last time I dropped someone off at CDG by car, it took me over 2 hours to get back home to Chaville. This time the Car takes all of 22 minutes to get to Porte Maillot, where Rishi awaits me, and in another 15 minutes, I am upstairs greeting my delighted grandchildren. Yes, it’s true… The Brave Warrior is approaching senior citizen status!

To say that it is cold in Paris would be an understatement. It was 4 deg. C when we landed. Not a thing that would normally worry a young Brave Warrior; but with his distinct lack of follicles and smooth pate exposed to the elements, he needs to be careful not to catch a head cold.

The weekend speeds by quickly with a meeting on Saturday evening at ACC, which clashes excruciatingly with England v Australia in London, Nonetheless, I am delighted to see my newly married daughter who has just arrived from Florida that morning. Saturday night is taken up watching rugby in the warmth of the apartment: France v Argentina. Unfortunately, one of my new best friends could not organise tickets for this match played at Lille. Although, it must be said, standing in the freezing rain late at night watching 30 guys beat the pulp out of each other is probably not for anyone but the most devoted of France fans, which I don’t happen to be.

Sunday, I am awake before 5 am. Today, there is an Agape (fellowship) lunch after church service. It is good to see all the folks who have come together from all across France, and even a few from the UK as well. As one would expect, the French do a ‘bring and share’ on a completely different level. 4-course meals, including salads, cheese and dessert seem to be the norm here. I am surprised they haven’t brought different cutlery for each course. Anyway, it is great fun tasting some of the local delicacies and specialities.

Immediately afterwards I accompany Jean Louis right across Paris to something called the “Foire Evangélique”. Sad to say, it is a real bazaar and the thought of pigeons and moneychangers in the temple does cross the mind… However, I do manage to connect with the people from Dieu TV, as well as Top Chrétien. So, mission accomplished, and fully worth missing out on my traditional Sunday afternoon nap.

A long drive back to Chaville and it’s time for all good children to be in bed, including an exhausted, jet lagged Brave Warrior.

Tomorrow the rounds of African embassies in Paris begins…

The Brave Warrior in West Africa 1 – Back to Paris

In Travels on January 21, 2013 at 7:06 am

The Brave Warrior scans the departure hall in an unconcerned manner as he waits to see whether or not he will be given one of the standby seats on the Air France flight from Mauritius to Paris…

I am watching all these hundreds of mainly tourists lining up to take flights to Dubai, London, Paris, Kuala Lumpur. The random thought crosses my mind as to what these visitors think of our fantastic facility, known to the world as Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Airport. Of course the new building going up next door is also very likely to be called SSR something or other. Once you leave the airport there are a number of other places you can visit called SSR something or other – streets, botanical gardens, schools; as well as sundry statues everywhere, including one in Patna, Bihar State in India.

That got me thinking that maybe we should just change the country’s name. Make life easier for everyone… Why should we continue to be known by the name of some obscure Dutch prince – even though he was effectively military commander and ruler of Holland and its fledgling colonies back in the 1600’s – when we could have such a pretty name like Ramgooland for example? Just a thought…

As I look around, I am also thinking and hoping that anyone other some random Chinese bureaucrat (they designed and built this present airport), and his well-trained Mauritian counterpart, will be in charge of the décor of the new airport terminal. From the tacky false waterfall (water feature?), complete with plastic flowers and ducks when you arrive; to the cheesy sign that declares “Welcome to Mauritius, the rainbow island of beauty and harmony”; to the awful plastic and paper Divali lamps and other tawdry bits of pink and mauve muslin cloth; we really need a makeover for the new building. In fact the only bit of taste in the entire building can be found in the men’s toilet on arrival. There are a few paintings by the late Marilyn Bretillard, my daughter-in-law’s mum.

I am on my way to Africa via Paris once again. As it happens, this is my 3rd trip to Paris in the past 5 months. It seems that providence, destiny, fate, karma, luck, and all those other things that cause the planets to line up in the cosmos have decreed that my future is intimately tied up with France. Perish the thought! But, What is a Brave Warrior to do, except take it like a man?

Soon, my personal AF ground staff lady, a sister from church, comes and tells me that it’s all in order. Unfortunately, due to a weight problem, I’ve had to remove my pillow from the suitcase. It doesn’t look very heroic (or butch and manly) for a Brave Warrior to be walking through the airport with it tucked under his arm, I know… The plane is completely full. I am seated next to what sounds like a French Canadian couple. However much I admire the Quebecois, we are not likely to be comparing notes on any subject in the next 11 hours that we will be in close proximity.

I have my International Herald Tribune (24 hours late!), a novel, and over 100 movies to choose from. Who knows I might even fall asleep, despite the cramped conditions…

See you in gay Paree!

Congo Adventure: 8. Kin La Belle!

In Travels on July 1, 2012 at 3:45 pm

8. Kinshasa La Belle

After a lapse of 22 years, I approach Kinshasa via the shores of the Beach Ngobila. I have many memories, most of them unpleasant, of crossing the river to get home from trips in West Africa early on Saturday or Sunday mornings. Flights were invariably late, and checking into the (then) only decent hotel in town – the Mbamou Palace – at 3am or 4am, before getting up for the 1st ferry or launch at 7:30 am was, as I recall, always, never a fun experience. Even from 100m offshore, I can see that despite a veneer of light blue paint everywhere, the place is as decrepit and awash with screaming gesticulating humanity as it always was. The last large ferry taking about 20 cars or so sunk on arrival with hundreds of deaths some years back. So now there are many small craft shuttling people across.

It is one of these craft that is today blocking our access to the jetty. On the river-side, is also a small patrol boat from the ‘Police des Frontières’ with a few guys in uniform making threats and screaming. Our driver decides to join in by hooting his ship’s siren. We make a first attempt to tie up with the waiting craft, but are too long to fit alongside, as long as the police boat is there. Now the fun really begins… Someone is trying to tie us up to the boat, our driver is screaming at the policemen in his boat. At least 25 other watchers join in to put in their 10 Franc Congolais’ worth. Soon, it’s bedlam; everyone is, it appears, to be insulting each other at the top of his voice. After some 15 minutes of this gentlemanly dialogue, the police launch is chased away to the clapping of many hands and loud cheers. I suppose that in a land of wretchedness and misery, you take your victories wherever you can get them.

No sooner having stepped off our boat, that we now have another scrum with ‘baggagistes’ grabbing our luggage, as we thread our way across the first boat and onto the steep and crowded gangplank. One would think that this is first time that (white) foreigners have entered the country in this way. Everyone is screaming and shouting asking for money, documents, health certificates, as well as one brave soul who tries to polish my shoes. Moneychangers are thrusting wads of filthy notes in our face. What strikes me is that the place must be a laboratory of communicable diseases; yet, believe it or not, a guy with a white coat has the audacity to ask me if I have a vaccination certificate for Yellow Fever. I haughtily ignore him, preferring not to tell him that the last 2 I’ve had were purchased for $20.00 in Pointe Noire and Nairobi respectively. Amidst all this confusion, Georges, my intrepid travelling companion, has managed to sneak through the gate and is now safe on DR Congo territory. I am stuck in no-man’s land because some heavy is wanting me to pay some tax (redevance) or other. My Brave Warrior instincts kick in, and I decide simply to ignore him and shake my head to every one of his requests. Finally, he seems to realise that this ‘Mundele’ (white man) is not going to give him anything and there must be better pickings elsewhere. The gate opens magically and I also enter DR Congo for the first time in 12 years.

I won’t bore you, dear reader, with the next hour as we wait from another set of stamps. Thank goodness we are sitting in Isabelle’s air conditioned Landcruiser. As we are about to leave, various flunkies come by to greet her, obviously to remind her of their role in getting us the 30m from the boat to the car. Can you imagine if we didn’t have all this assistance? As we drive off, one of them asks if we have the passports… Of course we don’t; so another 30-minute wait ensues while they are evidently checking with Interpol if it is indeed the much-feared Brave Warrior who has entered their country, under one of his many aliases.

A short drive out of the port complex, we are in the middle of town and arrive at the apartment. I can recognise many buildings and offices that were part of my daily routine all those years ago. Lots of new ones have sprouted too. Kinshasa has become a tad tatty and shabby since I left. Lots of little shops run by Lebanese and Chinese seem to have sprouted up everywhere. It’s not the most fantastic place on earth to be, but it’s what we ‘Kinois’ call home!

Kin, la belle, has definitely become Kin, la poubelle!

Congo Adventure: 7. Surviving the Congo River Crossing

In Travels on June 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm

As in all mornings during the Central African dry season, it appears as though the sun rises rapidly. One minute it is dark outside, next minute it is light. There is no gradual increase in daylight or receding of darkness. In any case, a rooster that has been crowing since 3am; he must be operating on local time in Mauritius.

Today we will cross over to DR Congo – Kinshasa. We are presently in Congo Republic – Brazzaville remember. It’s really funny how this concept throws everyone. No one has a problem understanding that Chile and Peru are different countries, even though they are both South American and speak Spanish; or even, that France and Belgium or Netherlands and Belgium are 3 very separate countries even though there are only 2 common languages between the 3 of them. But there you go… Only a few Brave Warriors like H M Stanley, David Livingstone, and J H Speke (and I include myself modestly in that list) have been there and seen first hand the realities of Africa first hand.

After the usual breakfast, where I stoically ignore the crispy baguette and the delicious looking pieces of juicy ripe pineapple and papaya, we set off to pick up Rock to visit another potential apartment for team accommodation. As we drive endlessly through the ‘cité’ in Brazzaville, I wonder if Rock is aware that we might want to be in the same town as the rest of the team. We finally arrive down a dirt road where there are some modern looking duplex houses. Of course, the dirt, dust, and smell of rotten fish does little to hide that we are in something of a dump. We visit the apartment belonging to the Revival Church Federation of Congo. It has 3 rooms with shared toilet and bathroom facilities. It is, not to put it too mildly, a bit Spartan and not a place I would leave visitors from Paris, La Réunion, or Mauritius to fend for themselves for a few minutes, never mind 5 days! Having shot down that possibility in flames, we wend our way through the streets of ‘Brazza’ once again, to the house to pack and set off for the river crossing.

A quick lunch; finish packing; get Georges to understand what we are leaving there for our return next week, and we are off. We organise 2 taxis to take us to the ‘beach’ as the port facilities are called in this part of the world. As soon as we arrive, a rush of humanity assaults our senses. Everyone seems to be shouting at someone else. So, little has changed this I was last here in June 1990 then…

We drive through handicapped people, all spindly legs and huge arms; they control the cross-river commerce. All they do is take merchandise across a few times a day: soap, sardines, matches, whatever is in short supply on one side can be bought across to the opposite side with wafer thin margins. Today, looking at the piles of plastic buckets, and wheat flour, it seems that people in Brazza will not lack for bread. Going the other way seems to be mainly imported foodstuffs, and skin lightening cream; big demand for this product in Africa

We get out of the car and a small scrum ensues as at least 15 people struggle to get their hands into the boot of the taxi to grab a suitcase. Foreigners pay top dollar for baggage handlers. The Brave Warrior steps in and starts threatening violence and to close the boot door on a few fingers. Now that order is to some degree restored, I select 3 of them to take out the 7 suitcases. Of course, another skinny guy manages to sneak by and grab a bag as well. The funny thing is that one guy is struggling with 2 cases weighing over 25kg each, while another has 2 little cases weighing less than 10 kg. Oh, for a little civilized organisation and coordination. A good friend of mine calls me “El Coordinator” (with Spanish accent!). Like Stanley, and other world famous explorers before him, The Brave Warrior ponders this challenge on the edge of the Congo River; and after some moments of consideration, and says, ‘No, not today, not ever!”

We are then led into a restaurant (of all places) where someone takes our passports. We sit down at a table where a shabbily dressed individual asks us rather aggressively what we are ordering from a fridge with soft drinks in plastic bottles, along with bottles of French champagne. Despite my best efforts, I can’t convince Pierre to share a magnum of Laurent Perrier ‘demi-sec’ with me. I presume it’s because it’s still early afternoon! We then wait; 90 minutes later, we are still waiting. There is very little to do at the ‘beach’ except to watch the chaos outside; everyone is pushing, knocking, and shoving each other at very high decibels. One would seriously think that a mini-riot is about to take place, but everyone seems to accept this as part of the whole fun and games. I take some discreet clips with my iPhone. At long last, someone comes and says they are ready for us to board. Of course, one must understand that there are procedures, permits, and manifests, to be issued. Then one has to find the chappie who must sign off. He could be off for a 3-hour lunch, having a nap, in the loo, or simply ‘not available’. We are leaving one country to travel to another one. Yes, I know, you didn’t realise it wasn’t only one and same country. All in all, we manage to secure the last of the 43 stamps and signatures, and we are off!

It’s the dry season. The Congo River is about 2.5m lower than usual. So the little launches have to manoeuvre right up to the concrete jetty, while we walk down steps to the water’s edge. At least 50 people are shouting instructions to the pilot telling him how to approach the quay. Some dude has made a mistake of not freeing up the jetty space. Another 50 people are screaming insults at him. Of course, sundry other people are all running around shouting and screaming as well, just to add to the hubbub of noise it would seem, are also shoving their way past us. One would never say that the launch has a fixed number of reserved seats, or that there must be a dozen of these crossings every single day. One slip at this point, and one’s body will fall into the brown waters of the river and catch who knows what collection of microbes and bacteria thriving there.

Of course, the people in charge recognise the presence of a Brave Warrior, and immediately a path opens amongst the crowd, as they allow us to clamber aboard and take our seats. It is a very low-lying launch with about 30 seats. Without further ado, well maybe a little ado… we are off heading to Kinshasa.

The ride is a mere 7-10 minutes to cross the 5 km of river separating the 2 countries. I enjoy the approaching skyline trying to pick out buildings that I recognise, and spot a number of new ones that were definitely not there during my last visit 12 years ago! The land of the heart of darkness draws near…

Congo Adventure: 6. Brazzaville Pt.2

In Travels on June 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm

We drive off in Isabelle’s VW Touareg to Rock’s office. It feels very Paris-Dakar in size and motion on the road. It turns out that the CIL, I thought we were heading for, is in fact SIL (Summer Institute of Languages), the tent-making public face of Wycliffe Bible Translators. SIL operates in countries where Bible translations are not allowed, as was the case some years back when Congo Rep. was a Marxist-Leninist state. Rock is in fact the Director of SIL; another interesting factoid about him is that he speaks fluent Spanish as his university degree was done in Cuba; another leftover of those bad old days under the old regime.

I’ve come early mainly to try and connect to send mails off. The IT chappie gives me a code for wifi access that makes anything that David G, or Fab and Laurent have ever dreamt up look very boring and so obvious. It is so long and complex that he has to store it on a USB key, because there is no way he could ever remember it, even if he tried. Soon I am surfing serenely on the web. Isn’t technology marvellous?

After a quick diet breaking lunch, it’s time to return to SIL for a meeting with the local Organisation Committee for the conference coming up in 10 days time. We are all gathered in the SIL meeting room, with about 12 local pastors. Immediately, the very French bureaucratic system kicks in. Titles, names, positions start flying around. “La sous-commission de coordination de l’organisation de la salle est redevable à la commission qui chapote le département logistique…” I am sure you are getting the picture. Each pastor has an obligatory position or title of Secrétaire, Adjoint, or Président! The place is just overflowing with chiefs, and there isn’t even one Indian to take orders.

I manage just in time to stop everyone making an introduction of who he is, the name of his church and his role on this organisation committee, as well as other sundry irrelevant personal details. After a brief introduction explaining who CTMI is, and why we are here, we are able to move rapidly into practical matters about what is being done to invite pastors, as well as for the meeting hall itself. I manage to keep things on track and the meeting ends on a satisfactory note, within an efficiently reasonable time. There was a debate towards the end about taking up an offering every day, which I am able to deal with in my usual gentle manner.

We then rush off to visit the hall itself, about a 20-min ride away. This is right though the cité of Brazzaville and the usual dusty grassless grey overcast scenario of the dry season is everywhere to be seen. Nonetheless, there are certainly far less people around than in many African cities. Brazzaville has limited public transport; so taxis abound with one model of late 90’s Toyota Corolla being the dominant choice for ‘taxi-men’. The ubiquitous green and white cars are simply everywhere and seem to be 7 or 8 out of 10 cars on the streets.

We arrive at the hall, where a few sisters are singing desultorily at some form of worship session. The place is, to put it mildly, very tatty, shabby, and quite dirty with dust from the road lying on everything. I cannot see how the hall could seat more than 250, but am given that African assurance: “Non frère, nous pouvons mettre jusqu’à 500 dans cette salle.” Some bright spark even tells me boastfully that he thinks they can put 750 chairs. Who am I to argue with such local expertise? Quite clearly the hall will need some serious cleaning, as well as a rethink where cameras can be set up. The columns that appear to be haphazardly situated will definitely create a problem for the filming, if the speaker decides to move more than 25 cm on either side of the pulpit.

From there we progress to visiting an apartment offered by a sister for visiting pastors. It is likely that we may need to use it at some point. Although, we can eat meals at Isabelle’s house, her husband’s partner will be there overlapping with our stay. I am not convinced that he is really ready for 12 zealous CTMI Christians all sharing with him. The apartment is simple, clean and very near the house, so will suit our needs nicely. With that, we return home. Tomorrow, we have to visit another apartment that Rock has found for us as back up for the extra accommodation that may be required.

On that note of intense satisfaction of having achieved something concrete, the Brave Warrior returns to the house to discover that there is still no power, and no water. It’s now been off all day since the early hours of the morning, and only comes back on at just before 11pm. What a country, what a continent… Africa wins again!

Congo Adventure: 5. Brazzaville Maya Maya

In Travels on June 28, 2012 at 3:15 pm

The plane is like a fridge. Why we must be kept at a windy 15 deg. C, only AF can explain. This makes even less sense when you realise that it will be at least 27 deg., when we get out at Maya Maya Airport. A pleasant surprise awaits me as we taxi to the terminal; a shiny, new, semi-finished Chinese-built terminal has replaced the little collection of ramshackle terminal buildings… All white concrete and marble, with blue reflective glass panels. To top it all, it’s fully air-conditioned and is still very clean. I suppose they haven’t yet had enough time to make it look tatty.

Health check, Immigration, final verification, and we are into the baggage hall. I suppose the efficiency had to come to an end at some point. We now proceed to watch the same series of bags go round and round past us on the carousel for the next 30 minutes. I feel like I know some of the people whose luggage is circulating quite well by this time, as I’ve memorised names and addresses. I try to spot the obviously Russian family moving to this city. All those cartons marked ‘Moscow to Brazzaville via Paris’ were an obvious clue. After an interminable period, during which one is tempted to climb into the luggage hold to give them a hand, there is a strange noise. Think of a 30-year-old Russian tractor dragging something without wheels on concrete. Within a few efficient minutes of the noise ceasing, bags start rolling onto the carousel. We load up our trolleys and go through the obligatory haphazard check of luggage tags to ensure we are not stealing anyone else’s bags. For goodness sake, we are missionaries… but that cuts no ice with the super officious lady.

Outside, my eyes take time to adjust to the sea of black faces. Soon, however, I spot dear old Rock, accompanied by Christophe. Both were in Mauritius only 3 weeks ago, so this is no great feat of memory or recognition. We go through the traditional preliminaries of handshake, followed by hug, and completed by the two-sided air kiss. I don’t recall where it is in Africa, where one touches foreheads as well. I recall head-butting a dear brother, who must have been overwhelmed by my affection for him!

A smart turbo charged Landcruiser with tinted windows and massive bull bars in front, easily takes our 7 large and heavy pieces of luggage loaded by assorted flunkies, and we breeze off like gangstas into town. Of course, there were the usual questions of, “Where is Isabelle, I thought you had called her, etc. etc.” Within minutes on the obviously new roads, we arrive at the house, very near the main prison. Isabelle is coming out of the house to go to the airport to fetch us.

We are shown our rooms in a typically large African designed and built house. Clearly not a lot of thought has gone into the furniture and fittings. But, this is what we are likely to be calling home for the next few days, so let’s enjoy it.

I try to explain to Isabelle about my dietary situation. She seems to understand; I am relieved. She has crossed over from Kinshasa, where she lives with her family just to welcome us and take care of us during our time in Brazzaville. What a heart!

The large bedroom has been separated by a ‘cloison’ and I have the converted sofa bed with the hollow mattress, while Georges and Pierre share a double bed. The AC is in my side of the room, while the en-suite bathroom is in theirs. Sleep comes easily with the lull of the AC unit. Sleep also goes just as quickly when the AC goes off at 4:45… Power cut! I manage to get back to a fitful sleep, and give up around 6:30. Now the fun begins, as there is no power and no water.

I convince Georges to make me a cup of blended Rooibos and Redbush tea, while I start doing some work. Soon, we hear Isabelle going off to buy bread – not particularly helpful to me on my diet. It’s 9:30 before someone starts to make loud, but unsuccessful, noises with a generator. At 10:15, we finally have some electricity, but no water. This is going to be fun… It’s wonderful how much you can do with a bottle of expensive mineral water and a glass.

Then, it’s time to get ready to go off and meet Rock at his office.

Congo Adventure: 4. Back on the Plane

In Travels on June 27, 2012 at 3:09 pm

4. Back on the Plane

The next 36 hours are like a blur. Of course, I love and enjoy a fantastic time with my family. Even a Brave Warrior needs a bit of emotional downtime!

But before I know it, it’s time to get up and head off for Porte Maillot once again. We rush through the morning traffic, full of little French people heading off to work. Strange thing is I can’t see anyone with a beret, and a blue, white and red t-shirt, with a baguette under his arm… I barely make it to the AF coach stop. Georges and Pierre have headed off directly, and I have to meet them at the check-in counter at terminal 2C.

Same drama when I get there, the coach drives round and round the futuristic ramps and I am totally confused as to where to get off. Georges told me it stops first at 2C, but we are going to 2E and 2F. Anyway, being a decisive kind of chap, I make an executive corporate decision to get off at the next stop and walk to 2C. I’m clever that way, and know that all of the Terminal 2 is interconnected. What I didn’t bank on is that 2C is about 26 km of walking down endless passages from where I get off. By the time, I spy a sign in the far distance saying 2C, I feel like I’ve completed a half marathon.

Some of you may be under the mistaken impression that I have something against French people. It’s not evident to me where such an impression could have come from. So, you will understand that it isn’t faint praise when I say that I am really impressed with the way in which the French have built their infrastructure… The tunnels running across Paris, the fantastic airport terminals as Roissy-CDG; the futuristic Stade de France, all are great feats of engineering! There, I’ve said it; just never quote me on any of this ever again!

So, there we are checking in and it all is going smoothly. Passport control is painlessly smooth. Then it’s remove shoes, belts, take chewing gum package out of pocket, and remove laptop from brief case. It’s a wonder we are not being asked to run around in our underwear. Once everything is packed up again, no small task, we are cunningly required to pass through a massive duty free shop. Very clever these Frogs!

Once on the other side, I decide to get a (diet-breaking) hot chocolate. After checking prices, I defer from buying a half ripe Colombian banana for €1.20, or a litre of my favourite mineral water at €3.90. This time, I am a bit more awake before getting on the plane. I make sure to buy the current issue of The Economist. On the way to the plane, I pick up my complementary copy of the Wall Street Journal, no International Herald Tribune, or FT. Typically French not to give you the classy newspapers…

We are finally called to gate C84. Unfortunately, because I was on Skype with the office back in Mauritius, I’ve missed the first busload. We now sit on the tarmac waiting for the latecomers. There is a brisk wind blowing and it is cold on this bus with all the doors open. The bus is full of Africans, quite normal for a flight to Africa I suppose. I have always loved to hear Africans speak French. They each have a completely different accent. After a while of hearing all this in the background, I almost feel that I am already in Africa. Most are shouting into cell phones, while others are talking quite sophisticated business-speak.

At long last, the bus decides to move. We drive, and drive, and drive. All the CDG terminal buildings have long since disappeared and we are still moving. In a flash of brilliance, I realise that maybe Air France is saving money by driving us nearer to the Mediterranean Sea to save on fuel. It certainly feels like we are about to hit the Spanish border at any minute. Think of driving all the way from the terminal in Plaisance to Rose-Belle to take your plane, and you will get the idea.

An uneventful flight, as I enjoy watching the Sahara desert flying by from the camera under the plane. I also watch 2 movies, much more out of boredom than anything else, before dropping off into a short but deep sleep. Turbulence and the subsequent announcement soon wake me up though.

Thankfully, the flight of almost 8 hours is about to come to an end. At destination is the first Congo (Brazzaville). We are about to enter into the ‘heart of darkness’…

Congo Adventure: 3. Paris

In Travels on June 26, 2012 at 3:14 pm

We land in Gay Paree with a slight ‘burmp’ as Inspector Clouseau might say. Despite taking off over 45 minutes late, we have caught up. Aren’t you impressed with the computers that program these things? In spite of this, even though we land dead on time at 8:35, we then spend an interminable 15 minutes taxiing across CDG airport. Just when I start to think that we are in fact being driven directly to where I am staying in Chaville – Air Mauritius being that kind of personalised service airline – we turn left and come to a standstill.

As we walk down out of the long glass passageway thingie, there is a traffic jam. 2 ‘agents de l’immigration’ have decided to check passports in the passageway for some obscure reason. Everyone is bending over trying to find where the jolly document is; not easy after less than 4 hours interrupted sleep…

Finally we arrive at Passport Control. What a delight to travel on a EU passport. For more than 17 years I travelled the world on a Mauritian passport. Now, please understand that I am extremely proud to be a ‘100% Mauricien’ and ‘Mauritius! C’est un plaisir’ and all that; I’m also very big into paying homage to SSR at every opportunity I can. In fact I am thinking of naming my next pet Sir Seewoosagar Ramgoolam… But it was always a real bother when arriving in civilized places to discover that you are number 437 in the queue to get into the country. This morning, the Immigration Officer is quite friendly (for a Frenchman) and even smiles. I’m sure those people on the other side with Mauritian passports are not getting a cheery French smile.

Somewhere in the rush, I’ve managed to lose Georges. I figure that as he has landed at this airport once or twice a week for over 25 years, he can find his way around. We collect the suitcases that have come through very speedily. We must now take a ‘le car’ (coach to you and me) into Central Paris. Of course, they’ve changed the set-up, without informing me; and we now need to walk from Terminal 2F to 2 C. Seems like a breeze, I declare boldly. I check the time on the large Rolex clock above. It is just gone 9:30.

We start walking and I follow Georges who, unusually, seems surefooted and decisive in what he is doing. It takes almost 15 minutes of avoiding Korean tourists travelling en masse, and African travellers with large bodies, and even larger bags and cases, before we get to our destination, the ‘car’ stop (that’s Frog for bus stop!). By this time, I am of the opinion that we must nearing central Paris on foot… Sadly that is not the case.

We step onto the ‘car’ (coach) and go off at full speed towards Paree. The full speed bit stops about 10 minutes outside the airport and turns into a crawl for the next hour. I have a blinding headache and Porte Maillot terminus doesn’t seem to be getting any nearer. Finally, of course, we get there. Georges goes off to phone, when a shiny black Renault pulls up with a young black dude inside who grins at me. I figure he is confusing me with some movie star, or rap artist, and smile back politely. We are after all standing outside the famous Palais des Congrès! I’ve managed to avoid saying a word to any stranger for the past 16 hours; so, why start now is my perspective. Then from the other side – yes, the driver is on the wrong side of the car; can you believe it? – up pops Pierre. He has been sent to collect us, and came by with his son.

We literally pile everything in, and then spend another 15 minutes looking for Georges who has simply disappeared… Finally he reappears, as if by magic with no real explanation! We head off for Jean Louis’ house where Marc is waiting for me. I am exhausted, but manage to get through the visa papers saga with Pierre for what seems to be the umpteenth time while keeping a straight face.

Then, it’s off in the car to see my family, especially my two boys.

A très bientot (as the locals say here)!

Congo Adventure: 2. Getting Ready to Fly

In Travels on June 15, 2012 at 3:26 pm

The last few days before I leave are a bit of a blur. I am not entirely sure of the reason… a lot of momentous things have been taking place in my life recently. In short order, these include having been all alone in Mauritius for the past 8 weeks (cue violin music); been on a severe diet to deal with a very longstanding medical condition called Candida; working extremely hard to catch up and get things finished before I leave; a milestone birthday which makes me aware that I am not getting any younger; my diet has done me so much good that I’ve been sleeping 6 hours a night for the past 8 weeks, when I usually need at least 10 simply to crawl out of bed in a fog.

Added to all of the above have been some intense emotional times… Firstly, with my grandson in Paris on a bit of a roller coaster ride with his kidney failure and dialysis problems. I was also extremely worried about my other grandson settling in, in France. So, all in all, enough to keep even a Brave Warrior having to keep a definitely British stiff upper lip in the face of adversity.

It was in this frame of mind that the days approaching my departure have come rushing up. Unlike previous trips, I am extremely detached and not trying to control everything. I’ve been feeling quite Zen about the whole thing; or, as the Frogs like to say: ‘ très freestyle’. Scarily, I don’t even know my flight number or the exact time it’s leaving! The arrangements in Brazzaville and Kinshasa are ‘vague’, to say the least as well.

Whatever the case, most things managed to get done, more or less. I am quite sure that I will find a number of major things completely forgotten or mislaid, or not packed at some stage during the trip.

The suitcases are quite heavy and certainly overweight. Then again, not every traveller from Mauritius can boast of such an eclectic collection of items in his luggage: brown basmati rice, canned coconut milk, moolkoo, tinned sardines and other sundry fish, bean noodles, lentils, plus an assortment of pills.

Thanks to my good friend Graham, we leave for the airport with our faithful armour bearer Marco (known as Mamo in our family). We arrive at the airport and are told the plane is full. In any case, as is the case for travelling as Air France GP (standby passengers), we need to wait till check-in is closed before we will know if we have a place. We while away the next 2 hours listening to Graham regale us with his trips in the early days of CTMI to Seychelles and Kenya.

Finally, after offering to fly on crew jump seats (rear facing and upright) if required, we are called forward. The AF lady in a fit of zeal insists that we are only allowed 23 kg per case. A quick scramble and unpacking to remove the offending extra 5 or so kilos, and we are ready to go.

For me everything else is a bit of a blur and exhaustion finally sets in. I don’t realise how much stress and tension I’ve been through over the past few weeks. It’s only now that I can really let go a bit. When I get on the plane, I’m struck by the fact that I am sitting on a plane with no book to read, having not bought my usual ‘The Economist’ at the shop on the way. My Kindle Reader is flat, as are my iPhone and laptop. I have also forgotten my shaving kit. Wow! I must be seriously in a bad way… I don’t believe that, in almost 35 years of constant travelling that I’ve ever boarded a flight so ill prepared! (More violin music here, please)

But there is Islander Magazine, which serves to keep me awake till they serve a dinner I can’t really eat. After a night of fitful sleep almost upright in a very crowded plane we land in Paris.