Saturday, June 23, 2012

Travel in the Congo- Part 1

Traveling in the Congo can be quite an experience.

I would like to describe the experience for those who haven't had the pleasure.  Our preferred method from Brazzaville to Impfondo is flying.  We've had a few times where everything goes smoothly, and then there are those other times.... At least they make good stories.

What is a typical day of travel like?

Purchasing your ticket
This cannot be done on-line but must be done at the airline office.  There is a certain window of opportunity in which to make the purchase.

If you buy it too soon, you might find out that there is no plane that day, and it can be a hassle to get your money back or your date changed.  If you wait too long, all of the tickets could be sold.

Does your plane ticket mean you are guaranteed a spot on the plane?  Of course not!  The airline often sells more tickets than they have spots available.  This makes travel more exciting- you know, the thrill of the unknown.

Line? What line.  I'll get there faster if I just take my giant keyboard and go in front of all of these people.
Getting to the airport
If there is a time listed on your ticket, it is to be taken as a suggestion. You are usually safe to assume that the plane will not take off before the time listed... usually.

 It is important to get to the airport early on the day of your departure. In Impfondo, we have someone else check us in, and we wait until later to go to the airport. In Brazzaville, we all go to the airport by 7AM, no matter when we think the plane will actually leave.
We were reminded of the importance of this on our last return to Impfondo. Due to an error in communication with our driver, we didn't make it to the airport until 9AM. When we finally managed to check in, we were told that we couldn't take any of our checked luggage- the plane was full.

We were lucky though, in that we were the last ticketed passengers accepted. Before we went through security, one of the airline workers told Stephen not to worry.  Since he was a doctor, they would probably leave another person's luggage and take ours.  Um, thanks?
There is a blue strip set up to mark the spot to form a line.  In the rush to try to get a spot, most people just walked right through that!
Going through security
In Impfondo, sometimes this means walking past people in uniform after showing them your ticket to prove you are getting on the plane.  Other times it means having your bags checked before entering the airport, and before entering the waiting area.  Occasionally, luggage is weighed.  They like to keep things random.

In Brazzaville, there are scanners for the luggage and for people.  When we were returning from our last trip, they wanted to confiscate my 1 1/2 liter bottle of Coke Zero.  I wasn't too happy with that, but didn't want to pay a bribe to get it through.  The two men ended up settling for a "gift" of a mini-mars bar each.   
Note to self: Next time give money; keep chocolate.

Once you're into the waiting area, it's time to get comfortable while staying alert to any movement.  It could be any amount of time, but if you relax too much, you could be last in line and get left at the airport.

Now, it's the airline workers turn to keep you on your toes.  They don't announce the flights.  We keep an eye on our fellow passengers, and rush the gate when they do.  There is usually at least one false alarm, sometimes more.  Rush the gate, sit back down and watch some more.

In the nice new airport in Brazzaville, there are bathrooms!  This is an amazing improvement.  Imagine being at an airport for 4 hours with children and no bathroom.  (Not a good combination)
Safely back in Impfondo- ready to head home!
There are no assigned seats.  This, along with the fact that people do get left behind if the plane is too crowded,causes a mad rush to try to be the first one on the plane.  We've seen people pushing, yelling, climbing through the window of the airport, and more to try to get ahead in line.  So far we haven't been left behind!

As you approach the plane, there are also many arguments with the airline personnel about what constitutes a carry-on.  These can become heated arguments with lots of yelling and name calling.  Who wins?  Whoever can outlast the other person.

What do you do with the things that won't fit in the overhead luggage compartment or under the seat?  Well, there's always the bathroom.  We've been taxi-ing down the runway while the flight attendants frantically shove things in the little tiny airplane bathroom.  It provides entertainment, at least!

And finally, you are airborne!  You can now stop praying that you will make it on the plane, and pray that the plane will safely make it to the destination.

Bon Voyage


Anonymous said...

Sounds exciting... :)

Karen Palin said...

That was a fun read. Thanks for taking the time to share. Glad you are back home safe. Karen Palin