Just keep in mind the following experience is made about 75% more pleasant by the fact it’s taking place in one of the three months of our “dry season”, or the closest thing Congo gets to winter, which means a cool 25 degrees Celsius and dry weather as opposed to 35 degree beating down heat and 90% humidity that you can expect from September to June.
But still, arriving in Brazzaville is not for the faint of heart.
You arrive into a medium-sized room with three booths. Between the tarmac and the entrance to this non-descript room, there is a wood-framed double-paned glass door, one half of which is open. A man in a suit with a colored ID tag checks your passport and visa.
Then, inside the door, is a man dressed in civilian plain clothes who acts offended because every passenger walks by him without showing him their passport and visa. The guy, I repeat, has no ID, no badge, no uniform. He’s wearing casual clothes, and gives you attitude for walking by him without volunteering the exact information you gave to the official not two feet away from him.
You pass this initial confusion, and walk into the room, and notice people standing around confused, with no idea what to do next. Slowly you look around and notice people lining up in front of booths, and you line up. But then you realize that something in small print says this line is for nationals, so you get out of that line.
Then you notice people scribbling on pieces of paper on the side, and you realize that you need to fill out a form to enter the country. You retrieve a form from one of the makeshift wooden islands (wehre there are no complimentary pens) and look at the piece of paper. It’s a quarter cut A4 piece of paper, and badly cut at that. You fill in the information, which requires a street address for your stay in Congo (there are no street names or numbers in the most of the country) and fill it out as best you can with landmark indications (“The Stars” International School, facing the Italian Consulate, next to the Bangui conference center, behind the Mavre pharmacy).
You arrive at the counter where the guy reads every single line of your passport fine print, information, makes out every visa you’ve ever gotten, and reads every line of the information in your Congo Visa, then finally lets you go through. Since you see the exit, that’s where you go, until someone yells out something at you, and you realize that BEHIND the booths is where you were actually supposed to go.
Three scary women in white nurses uniforms are asking to see everyone’s international vaccination card. Woe is the person who doesn’t have it with them, because they’re in deep trouble. If you don’t have a valid Yellow Fever vaccine (they’re valid for ten years), you will get vaccinated on the spot, and have to pay for it. No way around it. And I’m just saying…there is nothing in my experience scarier than the idea of getting vaccinated in the most gross airport lounge you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s grimy, un-airconditioned, and the most unsanitary place you can possibly imagine. Now imagine getting a shot here.
After you pass the scary nurses, you go through ANOTHER checkpoint to check your passport and visa again. This is where you get accosted by airport hustlers who want to get your luggage for you.
Once you pass this checkpoint, you go to baggage claim, which is basically a contact sport. You’re better off just giving up the fight, and letting an airport hustler get your luggage as you point it out to him. You’ve also had better hung on to your checked luggage sticker stubs. You know the ones you usually don’t pay much attention to, once you check your luggage at your departure point? Well, in Congo, they’re VERY important.
Before you get out of baggage claim, you have to open your luggage and justify whatever random objects they ask you to justify owning or bringing into the country. After you get through this, two very unfriendly military guys check your checked luggage stub NUMBERS to make sure they match the suitcases you’re taking out of the airport. At this point, you’ll get to exit the airport, but not without one more person checking your passport and visa.
Then, you’re almost home free, if you can make it to a cab without imploding from the number of people trying to sell you crap (from a foot washing, hub cap painting, prescription glasses, cell phone recharges, water, gum, watches, peanuts, cigarettes, umbrellas, pirated DVD’s, DVD’s of Osama Bin Laden vs. George W. Bush, music tapes) and taxis insulting one another to try to get your fare.
Welcome to Congo! M’Bote na bino!