My stay in Brazzaville would be the last before leaving for a long time, a world with a minimum level of comfort. That's why I had to reluctantly spend three necessary weeks in the capital as a base. It is not an easy thing because I does not come as a surprise to me that, like pretty much all African capitals, it is neither beautiful nor interesting. Here I had to concentrate mainly on battling the worst bureaucracies of the countries of this western half of Africa, so that I could keep going ahead with my ambitious plan to cross the equatorial rainforest.
Everything for a visa.
During my stay in Cabinda I understood why fate had decided that I should not obtain the visa for D.R Congo in Luanda, but far from giving up the battle, I decided to resume it in Brazzaville. The fight would not be easy, though I had never expected it to be.
First day: I started by going to the embassy to confirm what I already knew, they only grant visas to local people or to foreigners with a Congolese resident visa. With a plan of attack in my head, I tried to make sure that the visa was actually possible to obtain by being a resident. The friendly receptionist told me that there would be no problem at all and the fact that these people seemed nicer than the crocodiles at the embassy in Luanda, reassured me with a slight air of hope.
Second day: I head to the national immigration office in Brazzaville. I'm going with a bold plan in mind. After losing myself again and again in the chaos of a maze of corridors and offices in the basement of this huge building, I managed to find the visa office. There are 15 people in a space for 5, surrounded by mountains and mountains of folders and stacked forms. At the epicenter of this mousetrap, sitting on a large desk is a man who, like a Zen monk, seems immune to the chaos that surrounds him. He's the chief of the visa department and I come to see him.
"Take a seat, sir," he says cordially. "What do you need?"
- Good day officer! Well, look, I find myself visiting your beautiful country with a tourist visa and the truth is that I have fallen in love with this place, and as I travel the world by bicycle I would like to have more time to travel across it. Is there any possibility of extending my current visa?
He takes my passport, examines it, reflects while looking at my visa, and after a few seconds he declares without further questions and with the serene tone of a great intellectual thinker: "Yes, it is possible"
My heart accelerates with joy and I respond trying to hold back my excitement - Fantastci!! - I smile - and how long can I extend it for and how long do I have to wait for it to be issued?
- Well, it can only be extended for a year with a residence visa. You need a photo, fill out this (one side) form, pay 106,000 CFA and pick-up tomorrow.
And so my friends, that's how easy it was to become a resident of the Republic of Congo.
Third day: today, after becoming a proud resident of Congo, with the visa stamped in my passport I go directly to the embassy of the D.R. Congo. At the reception booth, just like a policeman demonstrating his power showing his badge, I show my resident's visa. The receptionist opens the gates to the embassy with a broad smile. I can not believe it, I passed the front gate and I'm in inside. It's no small thing. WIthin the office, however, the situation would change.
After 15 minutes of waiting, from the far confines of a dark cubicle, a fat woman with a thick voice calls: NEXT.
With a huge smile I exclaim - Good morning Madam! How are you today? I come to apply for the visa for your country, I am a resident here in the Congo and I need to travel to Kinshasa.
She takes my passport without returning the greeting, let alone a smile, and with a face of distrust examines it. Immediately I notice that this woman has not had an orgasm in many years, perhaps not even in her entire life.
- Okay, fill out the form, give me two photos, pay and wait at least 3 weeks.
- 3 weeks???? but I was told it takes two days !!
- That was before, now all visas must be approved in Kinshasa first and that takes an indeterminate amount of time.
Dammit! I can not wait that long, I think to myself. I step aside and hesitate for several minutes while here Congolese Mother Teresa now barks at another victim. Frustrated, I decide to leave and take the rest of the day to think about whether to wait or not to wait.
At night, Mikael, a French cyclist friend resident in Kinshasa who hoped to receive me at his house confirms it: at the moment the visa can take up to 4 or 6 months to be granted. There, many foreigners have had to report their passport lost to leave the country, because it disappears after they leave it in the immigration office to renew their own residence permits. I give up, I can not play this game anymore.
Already determined to proceed with the visas of the other countries and to let this go, that same night I meet Katleen, a Belgian girl who lives here and who had heard of me through some of her friends. The night we met, I told her my story and the problem I had with obtaining the D.R Congo visa. Katleen listened to me intently, then said, "I think I can help you!" - On Friday I am organising a small gathering with cheese and cold cuts that I brought with me from Belgium, I want you to come too. I will invite several friends, and one of them is the ambassador of D.R Congo here in Brazzaville. I'll introduce him to you so you can tell him your case, and if he does not come, we'll go and meet him at the embassy next week. My eyes popped out in surprise and a flame of hope revived. Fate had sent me an angel and was called Katleen.
I spent the days in Brazzaville enjoying a relaxing life, studying French but speaking Chinese the rest of the day with the restaurant managers of the Hotel Hippocampe where I live. I stayed for free in the tree house they have in the backyard of the hotel and waited until the big night, anxious to meet the ambassador, but also to feast on Belgian cheeses, a luxury that one could never even fathom being in places like these. Friday arrives, the exquisite cheeses and salamis are an elixir on the night in which the ambassador decides not to show up. l will have to keep waiting until next week.
The wedding: Congolese-style An experience that I enjoy a lot in the countries I visit is having the opportunity to attend a wedding. A friend of Katleen invites me to her wedding over the weekend, an exceptional pastime for me, that I need to kill time (and anxiety) until the day comes to go to the embassy. Serge is a half-Israeli half-swiss architect who is 66 years old and has lived in Congo for the last 15 years. He is getting married to Brenda, a beautiful Congolese girl of 22 years old with whom he has a son of a year and a half.
In Congo, tradition dictates that the future husband should buy the daughter from the family in order to marry her. The dowry is a common practice in many parts of the world, and here in the Congo, the entire first stage of the ceremony consists of two presenters showing the public everything that Serge has bought for Brenda's relatives. The list is on request, the mother, sisters, aunts request superwax (traditional Congolese dress) of different qualities of fabrics, wallets, shoes, tableware, etc. The father, the uncles, the cousins, ask for suits, leather belts but also axes, wheelbarrows, and elements to work the land. The brothers and cousins ask for bicycles, sportswear and so on. Serge must buy everything for everyone. For two hours, the presenters eagerly expose every item that Serge has purchased for them and give details of the quality of the product.
After that, the sisters and cousins entertain Brenda dancing around her, while the ceremony continues. Brenda kneels before her father, who is actually younger than Serge, and recites a speech of love and gratitude before leaving the family, offers him a glass of Coca Cola that he drinks in front of her. Marcel, the father, listens attentively with affection and then dedicates his words to them, happy to cede his daughter to Serge. In Congo, as in many parts of Africa, the large age difference between man and woman in a couple is not seen as a bad thing as the way we tend to see it in the West. On the contrary, it is very well seen here and it is considered very fortunate for the family that an older man marries a daughter, because they are able to offer consistent stability to extend the family. A stability it's impossible to offer for a young man here.
That's why many young women find their happiness with older Western men. It is not difficult to believe, considering that many African men even the not so young ones, behave like adolescents well into adulthood and squander the little money they have drinking it. They also rarely ever stick to monogamy, maintaining risk relationships with different women behind their wife's back with the danger that entails in Africa and much more. A mature and financially stable man like Serge is a blessing in the eyes of Brenda and her family.
When the formal ceremony ends, it is time to eat and socialize. At that time I personally get to know Marcel, the former head of the national forest protection brigade in the northeastern corner of the country where I plan to go. Marcel will become not only into a key figure for the success of the daring stretch that I have planned but he will also get me out of a very bad situation that I will find myself in later.
The final verdict
I've already spent two weeks waiting, I'm bored and I am running out of patience. I want to leave and give myself in to the jungle for a good period of time. I have studied French so much that I start to speak it without problems. I have eaten so much thanks to my Chinese friends that I am already getting fat. I have slept so much that I can not sleep anymore. I can not stand this excess of unused energy anymore.
It's Tuesday and Katleen takes me to the embassy. We pass the cubicle where Congolese 'Mother Teresa' is, and as a rabid dog on guard glares at us grunting as we pass in front of her house, (obviously she has not had sex this weekend either) to get to the office of the big man. The ambassador opens the door to his office, greets us with a huge smile and open arms and I am glad that the dog did not rip my arm off on the way in.
The diplomat apologizes profusely for not having attended the cheese gathering and after relaxed and irrelevant chit-chat, Katleen introduces me to him. I proceed to him my story ( the hard work I've put into studying French is now paying off. What a great decision) and the ambassador is immediately willing to help me personally. We leave his office to take the forms from the rabid bitch's desk. I fill them out right on the spot and he promises me that he will send the documents to Kinshasa that very afternoon. He will call when he has news.
I am very happy and I will only have to wait two or three days more as he told me. I feel like I'm about to finally win this fucking battle against the stupidest bureaucracy I've ever faced, but four days go by and Katleen's phone does not ring. I've been in Brazzaville for almost three weeks, and on the fifth day, Katleen calls. The ambassador apologizes, but the problem is much greater and it is Kinshasa. Since May the rules have changed and since then, the chaos in immigration is unprecedented, he says. There is nothing he can do to remedy that. The only option is to continue waiting indefinitely.
I give up, I did everything that was within my reach and evidently, everything is telling me that I do not have to visit the D.R Congo, at least not at this time. Only time proves the wisdom of destiny and through different means, I will soon corroborate for myself that It was actually better that I never made it there. I will leave it for another time then!
Within the next 3 days, I sorted out the visas for both Gabon and Cameroon and I'll be finally ready to embark on one of the greatest extreme adventures of my life.
One the way out of Brazzaville, I take the avenue that runs along the shore of the legendary Congo River. There, I pause for a few minutes and holding my fist up facing Kinshasa, lying on the other side of the river, I extend my most devoted and rigid middle finger to the worms and weasels that abuse and brutally rule the DR Congo.