Previously in Atlantic Abroad:
Among the Ruins (Tom Haines, Serbia and Montenegro, October 27, 2000).
Only Today (Michael Carr, Morocco, October 4, 2000).
Going to Meet Aleksandrovsky (Tom Haines, Ukraine, August 31, 2000).
Snowed-in in Shangri-La (Mike Meyer, China, August 2, 2000).
India's Road Cool (Mike Youngblood, India, July 7, 2000).
Manhood and Bureaucracy in Ozyory (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, June 1, 2000).
Soccer in the City (Erik Barmack, Italy, May 10, 2000).
This Goat Goes to Market (Joshua Kurlantzick, Oman, March 29, 2000).
Monsoon Time (Rahul Goswami, Dubai, March 1, 2000).
Rank Strangers (Jeff Biggers, Italy, February 9, 2000).
Midnight Express (Akash Kapur, Romania, January 5, 2000).
The Price of Devotion (Jeffrey Tayler, India, December 22, 1999).
For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad index.
Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.
From The Atlantic:
"Vessel of Last Resort," by Jeffrey Tayler (September 1996)
One of the last tourists to take a barge up the Congo River had arrived, but dead of malaria.
November 16, 2000
From Facing the Congo (Ruminator Books, 2000)
As I sat in the taxicab, heading toward the Brazzaville ferry dock where I would cross the Congo River to Zaire, words from what the guidebook said about Kinshasa flitted in and out of my thoughts, as did the warnings about the Beach.
We were still some way from the steel gates at customs and border control. I paid the driver and forced open the door. In a crush of bare backs, slick with sweat and hot, I struggled to stand up; grain was sifting out of sacks, people were shouting in Lingala and Kikongo; I shouldered my way through the hurly-burly of scratchy burlap and sweaty torsos and bony elbows and plantains.
Next to me popped up a bony fellow in a green BRAZZAVILLE PORT smock. He pointed at my bag. I nodded okay. He hoisted it to his left shoulder and with his right hand beat apart the bodies and shoved through them, looking back to make sure I was keeping up. Lingala and Kikongo were tumbling out of mouths in basso profundo diatribes; soldiers were using their rifle butts to bully the crowd away from the gates. Loaded carts creaked along and threatened my feet; my porter kicked and pushed and ripped his way to the gates and dragged me through.
They slammed behind me. I was free, panting and soaked in perspiration not my own.
"Halt! Vos papiers!"
An officer in a navy beret, short and stout as a fire hydrant, stomped up and held out his hand. I gave him my passport. He snarled, his ivory teeth set in an ebony mask, his voice a comedian's parody of a growl. "Big problem! You have no entry stamp!" I did have one and I showed him. He gave me a sly look. "Well, okay, but there are many ... aah ... formalities here -- will you buy me a beer?"
"If you get me to the ferry without any problems, yes."
Forget about the immorality of rewarding the corrupt. I wanted to get out of Brazzaville and through the Beach as quickly and smoothly as possible. I was, after all, a walking bank: I had almost two thousand dollars' worth of cash (in dollars and French francs) concealed in a pouch under my belt, and two thousand dollars in traveler's checks in my knapsack, plus camera gear. I decided I would pay police and soldiers matabiches (as bribes were locally known) on both sides of the river for their good offices, as I had heard Zairean businessmen did, and lessen the risk of conflict. I would try to look bored, blasé, and basically good-natured, as though I made this sort of trip every day and sympathized with the valiant and underpaid men in blue and green, and was happy to help them out with a buck or two here and there, as long as I was paying for services rendered. Toward this end, I had folded in half a dozen one- and five-dollar bills, plus some French francs, and positioned them in my pants pockets so that I could withdraw them one at a time and not have to produce a tempting wad of banknotes.
The officer disappeared with my passport into a corrugated steel shed marked IMMIGRATION. Kinshasa loomed large in the keen afternoon light. Smoke was rising from somewhere beneath the towers and cranes -- was something on fire in the city?
Congo pop blared tinny-sounding from the loudspeakers of the bar past passport control. The porters awaiting new customers were swaying to this music. A couple of them smiled at me. I found my face frozen into its affected expression of casualness, and their smiles took an instant to register with me. When they did, I smiled back.
My porter looked at Kinshasa. "Zaire," he said, almost wistfully. "The land of the great gamble. Wealth, minerals, diamonds -- anything is possible there. In Zaire you can win big."
"No, I don't have the money. Zaire is for big-money men. Just look at the Zairean businessmen around here."
The officer came back. He glanced at the bar and smiled. Wasn't it beer time?
"So where's my passport?"
He swelled his chest and stomped over to the shed and barked something into the barred windows. Inside my passport was fluttering from one set of hands to the next. An officer yelled from between the bars: "Come here! We must examine your face!"
I put my face up to the bars. A wincing man, the chief, apparently, shifted on his haunches, snorted, and cleared his throat. He slowly turned his eyes to the picture in my passport, then back to my face, then again to the picture. Bon. He assiduously inscribed my name and number in his ledger. Then he asked for the first name of my father and country of birth of my father and then of my mother and so on, writing them all down, licking his lips, furrowing his brow, clearing his throat. This was demanding work, and I would just have to be patient.
My officer pounded on the wall with his fist. The chief handed me my passport. The song changed. I gave my officer a dollar and he nodded thanks and salsaed off to the bar. I paid the porter and moved on to customs. Customs was a plank shed the size of a phone booth, with tattered curtains for a door. I flung them open and walked in. A man in a T-shirt and baggy shorts rose from a stool. He snatched my passport. "Ah, a relative of Mr. Clinton! How much money do you have?"
"Two thousand dollars."
He gulped. "Show me those dollars."
I took out my traveler's checks. He slumped back onto his stool and waved me on.
From his booth, a wobbly ramp, slime-coated, rust-red, and about ten yards long, led out over the churning azure river to a dock, where two double-decked, tugboat-sized ferries were lashed together and rocking in the current. I trod carefully, my smooth-soled shoes slipping on the ramp. Hurried by the sacks and crates on their shoulders, porters, in ragged shorts, their bare feet affording them reliable purchase, rushed by me shouting, "Attention!" bouncing the ramp and disrupting my balance, compelling me to clutch the rail. However, slippery as it was, the ramp was well staffed with document specialists: one officer demanded my passport, another inspected my yellow fever vaccination certificate, the next scrutinized my ticket. Bon. Passez.
Finally, when I was one last dainty step from the dock, a rail-thin martinet with bug eyes, a sort of red-bereted Congolese Don Knotts, stopped me and ordered me in a squeaky voice to show all of my documents again and I'd better be tout de suite about it! He grabbed my yellow vaccination booklet and shuffled its pages. "Mais c'est trop! Too many vaccinations! What's in your bag?"
Clothes, I told him.
"Clothes? Let me see your clothes." He was swaying, and his eyes were red.
I opened my bag to an Updike novel and a roll of underwear, and Ho! A porter tripped and tumbled down the ramp, his sack scraping across the metal, his bare back sliding in the slime, his shins slamming into the railing. He clutched his legs and howled. Don Knotts blew his whistle and brandished his baton -- how dare this witless boob slip on his ramp! -- and made a step onto the ramp, nearly slipped, stepped back and whistled and excoriated the downed man in shrill Lingala.
I shot past him, jumped aboard the ferry, slipped through the crowd on deck, and found a place. A tricycle wheelchair with loaded wagon attached swerved and bounced as it sped down the ramp toward the water, having broken free of its porter; its driver, a polio victim sitting on shriveled legs, was helpless to direct its course. The porter raced to catch up and slipped, the ramp bounced, the ferry's deck heaved with the current. It would either be too high or too low for the wheelchair. In spasms of furious maneuvering, the other wheelchair drivers aboard, and there were many, lurched their chairs out of the way. The free-rolling wheelchair rebounded off a mooring post, swerved, and sailed over the foot-wide gap between dock and deck to land on the ferry, its cart losing grain, shocks of maize, and a jumble of cooking pots as it crashed and rattled to a halt. But the driver kept his seat. Laughing, he raised his thumbs in victory, and everyone applauded.
Finally, when we had carts on top of carts, a dozen limbless merchants stuffed among sacks of grain and bushels of cane, when not a free inch remained on deck, a bell started ringing as if for a two-alarm fire, then a three- then a four-alarm fire, faster and faster. The captain marched aboard in dress whites and climbed the stairs to the bridge. The engine hacked and coughed into steady chugs, smoke belched from the stern, and the boat began vibrating and rocking. We honked, cast off, swung round, and motored out into the rushing blue currents, heading diagonally across the river, cutting through the fog, listing hard, with the rafts of water hyacinth bearing down on us, green in the blue water, hissing as they swept against our sides, hissing and speeding on into the mists. When we reached midriver a breeze blew over us, a breeze fresh if not cool, and for the first time since boarding we all relaxed.
But not for long. Half an hour later the fog fell away and revealed the skyscrapers and cranes of Kinshasa, with smoke at their bases. The passengers rustled back to life, and a knot formed in my gut. As we drew near, the city that looked so grand and modern from Brazzaville turned into a vision of ruin and charred shells and rot: tin-shack slums huddled along the banks under a shroud of smoke; heaps of warped steel and buckled beams -- rusted-out barges and the wrecks of ancient riverboats -- crowded the shallows, the current churning through their gutted lower chambers. They were alive, these wrecks, with squatters: eyes peered at us from glassless windows, cooking fires from braziers released pungent aromas into the breeze. On a few of the sterns people stood naked, facing away from us, men and women in separate circles, lathering and scrubbing themselves down, rinsing themselves off.
"Ngobila Beach!" said an old porter next to me in cutoff jeans, his hair a fine dusting of silver on his bony cranium. He hoisted my bag atop his head. At Ngobila Beach was a rusted ramp, down which a crowd was sprinting. Behind them, soldiers, shouldering their rifles, were jogging our way; legless beggars with sandals on their hands began loping in our direction, swinging their torsos along.
We started docking, a laborious bobbing maneuver of lurches and swings in the surging current. There were shouts from the Beach. The soldiers were gesturing -- I saw, to my sudden consternation -- to me, the ragged youths were waving at me, even the legless ones were gyrating and motioning to me. Mondele! Le blanc! Ey, le blanc!
The ferry crowd stirred and scrimmaged and shoved toward the edge. With a yard of water between our deck, which was heaving in the current, and the dock, which was stable but jammed with rifle-toting soldiers and hailing beggars, the ambulatory contingent of our passenger load started leaping ashore. My porter made the jump. I would have waited, but people pressed at my back; I leapt over the divide, smacking into the backs and arms of those ahead of me, catching my balance to avoid plunging into the narrowing gap between the boat and the dock. But I was ashore.
I pressed ahead, following my porter.
"Halt in your tracks!" a crisp voice commanded in English. "I am from SNIP. Documents!"
A tall man in Ray-Ban sunglasses, strong of jaw, dressed in a shimmering green sports jacket, a starched white shirt, and pressed navy trousers, stood ramrod straight amid a swirl of porters and soldiers, holding out a laminated ID card. I scrutinized it: SNIP stood for Service national de investigation et protection. I took out my passport and he snatched it. The soldiers, black-bereted, in green fatigues, brandishing their rifles, their eyes fogged red, flooded past him and grabbed at me. He waved his arm and they scattered like frightened dogs. "You come with me!"
He turned and started into the crowd. Looking away from the pairs of wild red eyes, I tried to follow him, but the rush of bodies closed as soon as he passed, and I had to wrench my way through scuffling forearms and gun butts and sweat-stained fatigues. My porter, agile and thin, kept up with me.
We reached an iron gate and the SNIP officer slipped through, but people thronged against the gate on the other side and it slammed in my face, striking me in the cheek; my eyes watered from the pain and my head rang. At my back the crowd heaved and shoved, thrusting me against the bars. The bars indented my cheek; I tried to cry out but I had no breath. My porter was jammed beneath my underarm. I managed to think, He has my passport! Then the gate swung open and the SNIP man yanked me and my porter through. "Viens!" he said, pulling me by the arm, like an apprehended felon.
Here the soldiers came on harder than ever. "Open those bags!" "Give me money!" "Show me your documents!" From right and left, beer-breathed commands in French were shouted into my face; a soldier grabbed my belt and yanked, pulling me backward and off-balance. My officer kicked him in the shin and the soldier relented, his face a mess of bony cheek and gnarled brow, his eyes red with booze.
"Viens!" The SNIP man forced his way ahead, shoving aside khaki, pummeling his way through berets and rifles. He was heading toward a large blue shed -- Immigration and Customs.
Near the shed a woman soldier touched my forearm. She had long straightened hair done up in a bun and was wearing loopy gold earrings, and her beret was set way back, like a stylish French bonnet. She was chewing gum. "Ouvrez vos bagages!" she ordered, smiling and showing me her gum wad.
The SNIP man thrust himself in her face. "The American must be addressed only in English!" He placed his palm against her chest and propelled her into the shed wall.
We walked inside the Immigration shed. My porter was still with us, my bag was still in one piece, my knapsack was intact. But here there were hallways, corridors of peeling blue paint, and dark little rooms. I had heard about the little rooms. The little rooms were to be avoided, no matter what. In those little rooms the officers could shake you down in privacy. You could get beaten up if you failed to cough up the right bribe. They could strip you down and find every cent you had, wherever you had hidden it.
"Come!" He strode down the corridor. He stopped by a little room. He snapped the dust off his lapels and adjusted his Ray-Bans. "Now, how much money you have?"
I said sixteen hundred dollars, lessening my sum instinctively and planning to show only my traveler's checks, then thinking I had still said too much.
"One six zero zero dollars."
"One hundred six dollars?" He looked at the little room. "You come to Zaire with so little money?"
Now was I to counter his suspicion that I was lying by correcting his mistake, or should I hope he believed I was somehow not worth his trouble? It was easiest to just agree with him.
"Yes. So little money."
He wrote "106" down on a chit and led me by the arm down the corridor. At the end, outside, we met a chubby man, barefoot and jovial, whose face was slick with sweat and oil and covered with pimples. "Bonsoir!" he said to me, jingling car keys in his pocket. He looked like a roly-poly inflatable figure -- if you hit him he would bounce back up.
Along this side of the shed there were barred-off rooms open to the street, rooms like cages. In the cages were desks stacked with rat-chewed files, pyramids of green and red and blue passports, reams of yellowed papers, scattered banana peels, shards of beer bottles, piles of coffee-stained documents. Behind them were men who looked like prisoners. The SNIP man tossed my passport through the bars and one of the inmates snatched it out of the air. A dispute broke out in Lingala with my precious blue booklet being bandied from criminal to criminal.
The SNIP man exchanged a few words with them, then turned to me. "There is a problem. Un grand problème." His features settled into a mask of the gravest concern. "This is your first time in Zaire. C'est vrai?"
"Well, they want to know why you've come."
The driver's oily faced mimicked his suspicion. This was serious, oh, très trrrès sérieux! they agreed, rolling their r's in an un-French way and chortling and shaking their heads.
"I'm ... I'm a tourist."
This sounded ridiculous even to me. But something stopped me from saying anything about my plans to travel the Congo River alone in a pirogue -- they sounded too ambitious for $106 and might provoke a search or further interest. I looked back at the inmates who had my passport and saw that Zairean businessmen were passing them dollar bills and retrieving their documents.
SNIP shook his head, and the driver waggled his oily noggin as well. SNIP frowned. "Que c'est sérieux! You must give the chief of immigration five dollars to solve your problem."
I looked away. I reached into my pocket and fingered through the bills, locating a prefolded five. But as I retrieved it a fifty, which I must have included by mistake, slipped out and fluttered to the ground. SNIP and I both lunged for it, nearly knocking heads, but I got to it first and thrust it back in my pocket. He took the five and marched over to the cage. An unshaven young man in a denim shirt and stained trousers stuck his arm through the bars and took the bill.
Further expostulations in Lingala followed, and both of them scrutinized my passport. My driver jingled his keys. SNIP came back jumpy and apoplectic.
"You lie! Quelle est votre mission ici? You are no tourist!"
"I told you, I am a tourist."
He stamped his foot. "You are not! We have no tourists here! The chief of immigration demands to know your true purpose. What is your mission? Gold? Diamonds? What are you searching for in Zaire?" Veins stood out on his forehead, and he stamped his foot again. "You must give fifty dollars to the chief or he won't let you go!"
I turned away. I couldn't think fast enough to retort, but my silence, I hoped, would be taken as expressive of the hauteur of a man who was above it all -- a man with a mission, in fact, a mission authorized from somewhere on high. He only said fifty because he'd seen the bill. I would not give him fifty, even to expedite my passage -- that was too much. And that unshaven lout behind the bars didn't look like the chief.
The SNIP officer reached inside the bars, grabbed my passport off the desk, and flipped through the pages to my visa. "Look here. You have a six-month, multiple-entry visa. You can come and go for six months. Tourists don't get such visas. You are on a mission, and we must know what it is."
"I know the Zairean ambassador to the United States." This was a lie, but I turned away as though that said it all.
Night would soon come on. The fear of having to drive across Kinshasa in the dark stole over me. The lot was teeming with porters and soldiers and lorries; the smoke, wherever it was coming from in the city, was thickening. I reached into my other pocket and fished out a fifty-franc (ten-dollar) note and handed it to SNIP. He smirked and looked away, then took it and gave it to the "chief," who started yelling in Lingala. But he gave me back my passport.
The porter hoisted my bag to his shoulder, the driver flipped his key chain, and we set off for his cab -- a lopsided, 1950s station wagon with busted side windows and a cracked windshield. I paid and parted with my porter. The SNIP man was close on my heels; I got in the front seat, and he jumped in the back.
"Now is the biggest problem of all," he declared, leaning over my ear. "Ahead there are ten police checkpoints. The cost is ten dollars each. You must give me one hundred dollars so that I can give the bribes to each checkpoint, or you will be turned back."
He launched into another round of histrionics and accusations of espionage and diamond dealing, but the driver started the engine.
"No," I repeated.
When SNIP repeated his demand I held up a ten-dollar bill. He laughed, he shook his fists, he screeched, he begged, and he bellowed; he kicked the back of my seat. The driver pulled his station wagon out a few feet and stopped. SNIP shut up, plucked the bill out of my hand with his thumb and forefinger, hopped out, and leaned into my window. "So," he smiled, "when will we see each other again?"
"Allons!" I told the driver.
He pressed his bare foot to the accelerator, and we lurched out of the lot.
I settled back into my seat, incredulous. All that had to have been an act, an act performed with the intent to fleece me -- or had it been? What would the soldiers have done to me had SNIP not shown up? Nothing? Or would I have been robbed and beaten to a pulp?
Fifteen yards on, at a crossbar, a soldier leapt into the road. Puffing up his cheeks, he blew his whistle and thrust out his arm.
His gesture was so exaggerated that I had to laugh, and he laughed, too, laughed and bared his teeth and put his face through my window. "Passport! Ah, America! A great power! Give me a big American present!"
I laughed and said no. In my pockets I had only tens and the fifty left, and I was not going to part with them. But his smile dropped away and his voice turned hoarse. "I said give me a present. How much money do you have?" Two other soldiers came out of the hut behind him, their rifles swinging from their shoulders.
The driver whipped a half-dozen zaire notes out of his pocket and handed them to him. When the soldier stepped aside to count, we shot past them.
"The soldiers are dangerous," the driver said flatly. "You should not play with the soldiers."
There were no more checkpoints. The sun was going down, and fast. We swung out onto an avenue of cracked tar, skirting the jagged bidonvilles of the Cité, the old town. On every corner glowed burning middens four and five feet high, and smoke hung in layers, gilt in patches by the fires, and we rattled through the smoke. The traffic lights were dark. The driver kept his bare foot pressed on the accelerator; we jostled for position amid honking trucks with lean young men hanging off the sides, trucks that whirled the smoke into giant curlicues that hung in the air and slowly fell away. Here and there pairs of women in dashikis sauntered by, swinging their bottoms, balancing baskets on their heads, laughing and talking loudly, their bare feet raising lazy trails of ashen dust; emaciated children raced along, pushing wheels with sticks, kicking soccer balls made of rags, all amid a vista of palm trees and middens, bombed-out neighborhoods of cinder block huts and steel shacks. Everything was an apparition, dim under a pall of smoke, smoke that was now suffused with the molten hues of the dying sun.
The sky went black. Cooking fires flared up on the corners, illuminating faces and figures; the smoke caught hues of red and orange from the fires.
A half hour later, we pulled into the sandy lot by the Afrique Hôtel.
Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. This article appears, in slightly different form, as a chapter in his new book, Facing the Congo, which was published this month. Tayler is also the author of Siberian Dawn (1999). He contributes regularly to The Atlantic Monthly and to Atlantic Unbound.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
Photograph by Jeffrey Tayler.