I Had a Meltdown in Congo

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.

The lesson?

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.

BZV Airport Lounge

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.

Radisson Blu Brazzaville Amenity

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.

Brazzaville 01 Brazzaville 02 Brazzaville 03 Brazzaville 04

Rapid Travel Chai newsletter ¦ Twitter ¦ Facebook ¦ Instagram

  • Jamie

    “Imagine if US hotels did that for all the times the CBP and TSA hassled visitors!”
    I think it’s actually possible that US hotels would go bankrupt if they did this.
    I always feel like such a jerk when I lose my cool, especially in public, especially with a stranger, and especially over something unimportant. We’ve all done it, best we can do is learn from the experience and try to do better the next time.

  • john

    It happens to all of us, I always say travel is 80% misery/tedium and 20% great.

  • I feel the same way when I complain that my hotel room air conditioning doesn’t work well and know full well that most of the country has none, or send back a slightly undercooked gourmet meal when many haven’t food at all. I’m sure you remained as calm and collected as long as you could be, and the frustrating part is that when things got difficult there wasn’t a clear-cut way for you to improve the situation. Glad that you ended up enjoying Congo nonetheless!

  • john

    would love to see a post trip recap with costs and flights when you’re back

    also, I’m lazy and don’t look at Instagram…where else can we see your travel photos?

    how many more countries to go?

  • J

    Had a very frustrating experience at the taxi line at PEK. FD agent at the Ritz noticed I was very unhappy and asked if everything was okay. Explain everything that happened and she comped my Club Lounge access. The lounge wasn’t special but it was a nice gesture.

  • PVKENL

    If you put your money ($10, $20.. whatever you like) inside your passport when passing the custom of those extreme poor/corrupt countries, you will pass the custom without any issues. That happened to me when entering Indonesia (one of the most corrupt South East Asian countries) and some other poor countries. If they want to accuse you of bribery, you can just pretend your money was misplaced in your passport accidentally.

  • Traveling in Africa can be taxing for sure. I am so impressed that you have hit all of these countries. I’ve been to Africa six times and have barely scratched the surface. And I suspect I will never make it to all of them as you have. As a woman solo traveler, so many places you dare to go, I just don’t . But, as a francophone, I would never come across the issues you did, just different ones. Kudos to you!

  • Rich T

    Thanks for sharing all the breadth of your adventures including the challenges and frustrations.