Saturday, December 16, 2006

Kinshasa to Birmingham - a timeline

December 15 - 2:00 p.m. Check out of hotel in Kinshasa. Minor panic, appear to have lost passport. Find it in suitcase, not at all in keeping with my normal organization, a place for everything and everything in its place.

December 15 - 2:30 p.m. Car arrives to take us to Kinshasa Beach, on the southern bank of the Congo River and ferry terminal. Note potholes in Kinshasa's road are getting larger by the day but regional stability appears to be settling in after the recent elections.

December 15 - 2:45 p.m. Arrive at the Beach, drive through to the VIP area (this costs extra but it is worth it!). Hand passports to agent who disappears. We go to the VIP lounge and enjoy the air-conditioning for a few minutes.

December 15 - 2:55 p.m. Our immigration paperwork complete, we walk across to the jetty and board the "Trans Vip" the executive ferry service across the river to Brazzaville. The river is in full flood, this being the rainy season. Brown muddy water carries floating islands of vegetation past the ferry boat. Locals fill buckets with river water and wash themselves and their clothes in the turgid liquid. No photography is allowed at either beach. I understand the BBC recently had a camera destroyed for filming in this area. My D200 stays hidden!

December 15 - 3:10 p.m. A lot of shouting on the pontoon next to the ferry - in local Lingala dialect - and I learn that someone is late and his secretary (a young lady carrying a parasol - another missed photo opportunity) has been sent to hold the ferry. We wait. The ferry master sounds the air horn in frustration.

December 15 - 3:15 p.m. Fifteen minutes late and we cast off into thr swift current and turn to cross the mighty Congo. Out comes the camera. Subjects include panoramas, pirogues (dugouts) and floating islands. Not as interesting as the beach scenes, but you get what you can get.


Floating Islands

December 15 - 3:40 p.m. Arrive at Brazzaville Beach. The usual hassle as officials decide which way we should go. Our passports disappear again, this time in the hands of our Congo Rep. representative. We retire to the VIP lounge for a short stay.

December 15 - 4:00 p.m. Our immigration clearances are approved and we drive through the solid steel gates onto the streets of Brazza. We drive past several bombed out buildings that are reminders of the 1998 civil war. A hotel, a supermarket, an office building. Then we drive up into the diplomatic area and the Meridian Hotel.

December 15 - 4:30 p.m. The Meridian Hotel. We find seats in the lobby and order drinks. And wait until it's time to go check in at the airport.

December 15 - 6:00 p.m. Off to the airport - a short drive (compared with Kinshasa which is about 25 kms from the city center along poorly maintained and lit roads jammed with ancient minibuses). At the airport we check in - first suitace check, then passport check, then ticket check, then check in at the Air France desk. Someting isn't quite right - my ongoing ticket is no longer the 7:35 a.m. flight to Birmingham, it's the 9:55 a.m. flight. No explanation offered. Explanation requested. Response is a sheepish grin. Later find out the plane is late arriving and will leave over an hour late.

December 15 - 7:00 p.m. Back at the Meridian and in time for dinner. After the haute cuisine in Kinshasa the menu in Brazzaville leaves a lot to be desired. Beef Bourguinone is tough. Oh well.

December 15 - 9:00 p.m. Off to the airport again, this time to leave Congo (we hope). With boarding pass, immigration form filled out we quickly pass the first hurdle, immigration. Then the security check. One passenger in the roomn at a time, the machines appear to be working. But the exit door is locked and a rather sad looking Congolese woman demands money to open it. "CFAs?" she says. "Euros?" she repeats with the same pleading inquiry. I hand over 5,000 CFAs ($10) and explain that that will have to cover all our party. She doesn't look happy (thought: could she look happy?)

December 15 - 9:20 p.m. Departure lounge and duty free shop. This is no free enterprise haven. Dirty, poorly stocked with broken airport seats (the sort you cannot sleep on even though you are often asked to wait hours into the night with nowhere else to go) and with no PA system, no TV screen. Fortunately there is only one international departure - Air France to Paris. Just as well, I am not sure they could handle two flights at once in Brazza!

December 15 - 11:35 p.m. After over two hours I decide it's time to join the diminishing line for hand baggage security check. They have set up their table in a dark area of the lounge. It takes forever to check everyone on a full Airbus 330-200. I then walk down the stairs to have my boarding pass checked, re-checked and then cross-checked against my passport. The agents again work in near darkness and take forever to compare photo with face, straining to see the photo in the lights of a passing fire truck.

December 15 - 11:55 p.m. I board the bus and wait. It's hot and humid. The bus tries to leave but someone has parked a container in its way. The driver gets out to move container and the door closes behind him. I wonder if he's locked out. Fortunately he isn't.

December 16, 00:10 a.m. On board at last. Crew don't feel inclined to offer refreshments until just before take off. Gulp.

December 16, 00:30 a.m. Take off, seat reclined, asleep. Just like that.

December 16, 4:00 a.m. Wake up freezing cold. Passenger next to me has her blanket and mine wrapped up around her chin. Go to request extra blankets, but there are none left. Change into warmer clothing reserved for Birmingham arrival, drink glass of water and fall asleep again.

December 16, 7:00 a.m. Beginning descent into Paris with a glass of orange juice and a croissant. Land at Terminal 2F, the same place the Birmingham flight departs from. That's good. Or is it?

December 16, 7:20 a.m. Deplane at Terminal 2F, join security line to re-enter terminal 2F. Experience once again the new liquids and gels restrictions.

December 16, 8:00 a.m. Finally pass through security and into lounge. My boarding pass for the flight to Birmingham is reprinted and I sit down for an hour and a half wait.

December 16, 9:25 a.m. Decide it's time to look for the Birmingham departure. After a problem with the ticket reader we are off onto the bus. The flight is about 25% full. The bus takes off on a journey that seems to be taking us out of the airport - are we being hijacked? No, our plane is just on the other side of Charles de Gaulle airport, and when we finally reach it, it is still being cleaned. We are confined to the bus for 15 minutes. Finally we are allowed on board and I find my seat is in the wrong class. But there is plenty of room to move around, so that's OK!

December 16, 10:15 a.m. Take off. Remarkably quick but then it's obvious: we drove the length of the airport in the bus so the was no further room for the plane to taxi! Things start to look up.

December 16, 10:10 a.m. 55 minutes later we land in bright wintry sunshine at Birmingham International. An airline employee guides us through four (4) locked security doors from aircraft to immigration hall. I am first in line and whisk through. Even more surprising my bag soon follows onto the carousel and by 10:30 a.m. I am driving out of the airport. Oh that the rest of the journey could have been so slick!!!!!

If you add up the time spent standing (or sitting) still, it adds up to 495 minutes! That's more than 8 hours!