I am winding my way through my final countries of Africa. The giant continent has been a great pleasure to travel. Costs have been an unavoidable challenge and logistics not always easy to arrange, though problems have been much fewer than expected. For a sample of tips on the hardest region see my 10 West Africa Travel Tips. Friendly people have been the rule.
Distance, closed borders, and poor roads mean many flights that are a drag. After a week consecutive days of flights I left Ethiopia in a dumpy mood. I had a great time in Ethiopia that turned sour in the end, serves me right for ditching the $50 guesthouses and staying at the Radisson Blu.
I flew on Ethiopian’s jaunt to Kinshaha, which continues on a 10-minute, 16-mile Dreamliner flight to Brazzaville. Let’s call it the Congo Hop.
I was first off the plane, visa in hand, pen at the ready for the expected health and arrival forms, and was looking forward to a lazy Saturday afternoon in this sleepy town across the river from heaving Kinshana.
The immigration officer looked at my visa and demanded a letter of invitation. LOI culture is found in countries with Soviet/Communist past. In Congo it is required for certain types of visit such as business. From all that I can tell it is not required of tourists. As with many similar visa regimes, a tourist needs only hotel reservation and departing flight, all which I provided. The Congo Embassy in Washington never asked for one in issuing my visa ($200!).
Something about French-speaking bureaucratic women sets me off. Wherever they are in the world, if you don’t understand French, they immediately break into a disgusted rant in French with dismissive gestures. It never fails to make me snap.
We then spent the next hour-plus cycling through shrugging immigration officers telling me to wait here and there. I won’t print some the things I said in violation of all guidance to always stay calm, smiling, polite, wait them out, etc.
The whole plane was processed, then us holdovers: a guy from Mali, some Lebanese guys with paperwork issues (their diaspora is active in Central and West Africa, and they are always pushy), finally a Chinese guy who wouldn’t pay US$100 for some issue he had. I was all that remained and one of the non-uniformed guys who wasn’t helpful before while he was directing traffic was now sitting at a desk and seemed to be in a supervisory role.
He had seen my paperwork several times already and done nothing. As other officers gathered he looked at it again, shrugged, said “Tourisme,” to one of the others and motioned for him to process me in. Maybe he noticed the big tourist welcome sign from the National Parks hanging over the immigration hall.
No one ever made any indication for payment. It was not a shakedown. They were just spectacularly unhelpful in making up their own rules that even their own embassy does not know.
I suppose don’t lose your temper at immigration is too obvious.
Maybe more useful is to know what needles you and mitigate it. I need to steer clear of those dismissive, French-speaking women. I was foolishly emboldened because there is a 24-hour Priority Pass lounge in the airport and my flight to Gabon was the next day. I was ready to set up camp on their couch.
Everyone else was great.
I always feel guilty when I blow my top in a place where by opportunity and material measures I am incomparably lucky compared to nearly everyone I meet. When I was enjoying college, Congo was in civil war.
I used a Club Carlson e-cert for the Radisson Blu Brazzaville. The gentleman at check-in, Demba, was soft-spoken and he could see I was still agitated. I explained my arrival situation, this time in calm tones and trying to laugh it off. He suggested I should have called the US Embassy (Ha! Try getting them to do anything for a peasant citizen). I also was not allowed to use a phone.
Demba and I chatted for a bit about this and that, then he bade me refresh with a nice shower. Not long after, a giant fruit and chocolate tray showed up. When I went down to thank him, the answer was simple: he didn’t want me to have a bag impression of his homeland. Imagine if US hotels did that for all the times the CBP and TSA hassled visitors! My guilt-meter rising.
Maybe there is no lesson other than I feel like a heel. And that Congo-Brazzaville is a delight once you get past the start line.