Africa · Congostyle · Travel

MESMERIZING INEFFICIENCY

Luanda, Angola transit lounge.

I just watched the highly enjoyable Motorcycle Diaries and proceeded to not sleep for six hours and am in a lot of pain because of what now looks like a slipped disk from a fall in London.We’ve just been transferred from our Boeing 777 via orange buses into the crowded transit lounge where older guys are hitting on the young ladies traveling alone. Vultures.

A woman who is sweating profusely stands in an elevated box and yells out “PONTE NEGRA!!!! POINTE NOIRE!!!” She is wearing an old tank top and a fluorescent sleeveless jacket (the type you’d expect from those guy who direct the plane) and gathers all our passports with the tickets inserted in. Dad leans in and whispers “every time they do this differently….” and we stand there, totally mesmerized. She gathers about 100 passports and tickets and stacks them into two very tall stacks, which she then pushes against her belly, and drops. Picks them back up, stacks them back and exits.

“This is the woman we’re entrusting our passports to?” I tell dad who just laughs.

“This is so interesting. This is the first time they do it this way.”

The fact dad is getting a kick out of this (and it’s infectious, by this time, I’m fascinated too) is sort of a key on how mom and him have been able to live in Central Africa for a quarter of a century.

Central Africa takes a certain kind of heart. And a certain breed of person. Anyway. Two minutes later someone else yells “PONTENEGRA!!!” and we’re ushered upstairs to the refrigerated transit room where we barely sit down and someone else yells “VIOLETTA!!!!!!” I’m still knocked out from the trip so dad brings back our passports. Everyone now has their passports back and we’re starting to move. We’re boarding. That’s a miracle. It was barely….what…half an hour??

We huddle around the gate to the bus that’s waiting and a guy is about to let us on but changes his mind. Where are our tickets? Dad explains in his made-up Portuguese (which is Spanish pronounced with some French words and exaggerated syllables) that they took both downstairs but only gave us the passports just now. So a commotion ensues and three airport employees appear out of nowhere with our tickets, and proceed to…completely fail at reading out our names. It is excruciating to witness. They can’t read even the first syllables of such foreign-sounding names, and everyone mis-hears, makes their way to the front of the line, looks at the ticket and realizes it’s not theirs, makes their way to the back of the line. It takes forever. FOREVER. But I’m getting a kick out of this. It’s amazing.

We finally get on to this tiny TAAG (Angolan Airlines) plane, all the way at the back. All the overhead compartments are closed because they contain the life jackets–ominous. Because there’s no space, a helpful steward directs us to put our cases and bags in the last empty row of the plane. Twenty minutes later, we see our cases being taken out by stewards armed with tags for checked luggage.

They had given away people’s seats. You should have seen the uproar. Passengers stood up, yelled, grabbed their luggage, made scenes. This is totally understandable because people travel back with incredibly precious things in their carry-ons. Jewelery, cash, laptops. Things that cannot be checked because…well…this is Central Africa. Things get opened, things get taken. You just have to be smart. It was complete panic, people hysterical. We had to fight to keep our carry-ons under our seat (which made for a very uncomfortable flight) and one poor guy had to yield.

We finally arrived at Pointe-Noire, Aghostino Neto airport, and stepping onto the tarmac of the airport, home.

The very first feeling is always the same. That same old memory of stepping out of the plane onto the soil of Congo and the humidity, at the same time familiar and uncomfortable, like stepping into someone else’s shower.

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