Africa on one pair of socks (can’t be done)

“We strongly advise against all travel to the Republic of the Congo.” - Foreign Office Travel Advice Page

Business trips. There ought to be a law against them. Everyone assumes you’re going on an extended holiday, when in fact you’ve got to work your arse off in a strange and dangerous country. I had just come back from a holiday where my usual opening gambit to Manchester United supporters “Why don’t you sod off back to Torquay, you glory hunting baskets” failed miserably. I went to Torquay, and it was full of them. So, back home for a day, then on to the working trip Up The Congo.

If you don’t know what I do for a living, it’s this : I’m a Technical Operator for the BBC World Service, researching and receiving foreign TV, Radio and press for their Monitoring Service. The proposed trip to Congo and Nigeria was to research their local media outlets, buy newspapers and generally find out what’s on the radio and TV there and in the surrounding countries. Easy.

It all started to go horribly wrong the moment I reached Heathrow Airport. British Midland no longer let you book your luggage in early, so as a result you have to join a mad last minute scramble and the poor staff on the check-in desk are totally deluged by passengers. The flight was to Paris, but I was connecting there for Douala and then on to Brazzaville.

“Can I book my luggage through to my final destination ?” I asked, hoping to save a lot of grief in countries that speak French and wave their arms at you.
“Ummm....Errrr....” she replied.
“No problem”, says her supervisor, leaning across the workstation and typing in the airport codes. Wrongly as it turned out. I watched as my case, all my clothes, my drugs, my wash kit, my camera and most of my technical equipment disappeared down the ramp. Never to be seen again.

It was in Paris that I came across my first African queue. The Cameroon Airlines flight was called, and everyone and their dog bundled for the gate. No-one queues in Africa, it’s every man for himself. Priests, nuns, little old ladies, all elbowing their fellow passengers out of the way. It’s not as if anyone’s going to be left behind, it’s the principle of the thing, you MUST get there first and watch everyone else struggling. I got quite good at it. I soon learned that people will go to any lengths to be the first in the bundle, even going as far as forming an orderly queue...

The words “We will start loading the plane with families and the disabled first” actually means “Every man for himself”. All of a sudden everybody has a family, or failing that, a limp. Even the clergy [no flight in Africa goes without at least one priest, nun or mullah for moral and gravitational support]. “Hand luggage” is also a very loose term, meaning anything from a chest almost the same size as the passenger down to, in one case I witnessed, a bucket.

A six hour stop-over in Douala [“The armpit of Africa - hot and sweaty” according to my Lonely Planet guidebook, and who was I to argue], the real fun started - Brazzaville Airport. Let me set the scene : Congo has recently emerged from a civil war. It’s dangerous, and the FCO discourages Britons to travel there. I, as a BBC employee, get a special waiver for insurance purposes. The place is a dump, run, as far as I can tell, by the police, the army, miscellaneous people with guns, and anyone else who fancies chancing their arm with the unsuspecting traveller. And the guy in charge of immigration is a right bastard.

You approach the bundle with passport and landing card in hand, hoping to get through at the first attempt. You notice that in most of your fellow travellers’ cases, money is changing hands. Except when I get to the barrier, and there’s no way I’m coming through. All my papers are in order, but for some reason, he’s decided to intimidate me. He’s not interested in a bribe either, he’s trying to get something more out of me, as he knows I must be In the Congo for a reason, and therefore I must have more than a few francs to give him. My passport disappears into a plastic bag, along with those from a few other unfortunates. On this guy’s whim, I’m in the shit. It’s then that Bernard shows up. He’s the driver that I’d had the foresight to book from the hotel. He’s got a mate in the police. We wait until Mr Bastard’s back is turned, he steals my passport back, and we run for it, laughing like idiots. It’s then that I find my luggage hasn’t arrived. Dejected, I fill out a lost luggage form for the Air Afrique office, but I’m not hopeful.

Leaving the airport, what’s the first thing I see ? Some Congolese guy in a Man United shirt ! I’m killing myself with laughter, and my cry of “Why don’t you sod off back to Torquay, you glory hunting basket” fell on uncomprehending ears. I arrive at the hotel completely knackered after 24 hours travelling only to find the survey turning to shit already. I still have enough equipment in my hand luggage to work with, but crucially, I have no reference material, no spare clothes, no malaria drugs, and the one thing I really want to do is brush my teeth. I spend the whole week remembering with a groan what’s gone missing. My camera... groan ! My spare glasses... groan ! Socks... groan ! Hairbrush... groan ! The list is endless, but don’t tell that to my insurers.

Tuesday morning. I get up, dress in the same fetid clothes and go down to the foyer for my breakfast. It’s crawling with troops, armed with a variety of pistols and AK-47s. It turns out that the army uses Le Meridien as the married quarters for its officers, but I could never get used to sharing the lifts with a crowd of heavily armed guys in dark glasses. On closer inspection, I also note that the rather spectacular cut glass patterns in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors gracing the reception are caused by bullet holes. And the rather interesting concrete mouldings are in fact grenade scars. Charming. As all my drugs are missing in action, I’m absolutely terrified of getting the shits. I know the food is flown in from France twice a week, but my breakfast still consists of a pile of toast and boiling hot black coffee. Now to face the main problem - I fly out on Friday, I’ve got to get clothes.

No problem, it turns out. Four of us - myself, Bernard, another guide and a bodyguard drive to the market and I pick up some shirts and jeans, a toothbrush and shaving gear. I’m a bit of a novelty, and the sight of another Man U shirt has me in fits of unexplained laughter. Back to the hotel, I report my bad news back to HQ in Reading and get on with the survey. And as surveys go, it isn’t terribly interesting. God has a vested interest in the local airwaves if the number of religious FM stations is anything to go by. I buy some newspapers and find to my horror, in the sports pages, one of the local top Congolese teams resplendent in their brand new Man United kits. Is there no escape from the army of Satan ?

Then, just as things are going well, one of my teeth falls out. Marvellous. Just what you need 5,000 miles from a decent dentist. Still, another trip out to the Red Cross pharmacy lands me a packet of Larium and I no longer have to worry about getting malaria. I also see, joy of joys, a guy in an Arsenal shirt. The faith is reaching Central Africa, crushing the forces of darkness before it.

My case has been found. It’s in Angola. Easy mistake to make. Mr Damn Fool at British Midlands taps in “LDA” for Luanda instead of “DLA” for Douala, and the baggage handlers do the rest. TAAG have a flight to Brazza Thursday. I go back to the madhouse of the airport to find it, but surprise, surprise it’s not there. My flight out is Friday, and I’m determined to be on it, case or no case. The survey is done, and the boredom is killing me.

So next day, I settle the hotel bill [finding, amongst other things, that a fifteen minute phone call to my boss had cost £95 !] and head for Maya-Maya airport. Another sweep through the offices, but no case, but unfortunately for me, I’m now known there as “The White Man With No Luggage”. I’d spare you the horrors of my checking in for my flight back to Douala, but good grief it was awful. The following people expected [and mostly took] small bribes : Three guards at doorways leading to the departures desk. The check-in, the departure tax [receipt given !], the man operating the dubiously old x-ray machine, the little old man who was in two minds as to whether my hand luggage was too large, the lady at the door to passport control, passport control, the man at the door leading to the stairway up to the departure lounge, the two guys searching the hand luggage outside the departure lounge, the guy doing the body searches outside the departure lounge, the guy guarding the door to the departure lounge, and the policeman who had accompanied me through the airport, obviously telling all his mates in Lingala that I was a soft touch. Some of these people may even have had jobs there.

Okay, for departure lounge read “store room with a few park benches”. Myself and about 100 other people were stuck here for two hours, no refreshments, no toilets. Then it’s another African bundle through a tiny door, out onto the airfield and onto the plane. No for me though. “Mr Coleman”, says a voice, “We have found your bag”. I turn to see a beaming police officer. I follow him to an office. Something’s wrong. I realise too late that neither he nor his colleagues have ID badges. The first one punches me. Someone else clubs me over the head. I get the message, there is no case, they just want money, and the pistol being brandished towards me underlines their point. Luckily, I’ve split the rest of my cash and travellers cheques to other parts of my person and hand luggage. They get $1,100 and let me go.

Simple problem : I can stay behind and complain, or quietly get on the plane and leave. Complaining would mean missing my flight and being stuck in Congo until Monday, my passport having been stamped “departed” would cause no end of trouble, as would accusing the police of robbing me ! I get on the plane, puke up somewhere over Gabon and keep my mouth shut.

One connection later and I’m in Lagos, fully expecting more of the same airport chaos. Murtala Mohammed airport has a reputation of being one of the most corrupt in the world, but to my surprise, I sail through with no problems, it’s even quicker than Heathrow. The new Obasanjo government has really cleaned the place up, and now it’s a model of efficiency. Once again, I’m met by a driver as the road to the city can be a bit hairy. Ayo and his Mercedes demonstrates how hairy it is by driving at 95 mph the whole way in the dark, lights off and leaning on his horn. He’s brilliant, and I tip him handsomely and promise to employ him as my personal driver for my entire trip.

It’s gone midnight, I’m thoroughly pissed off, my head hurts, so I just fall into bed and sleep. Next morning I ring, in turns, my wife and my boss telling them that this trip has turned from shit into utter, utter shit. Within an hour, there’s a ticket waiting for me at Murtala Mohammed airport for that night’s departure to London. Still with a day to kill, I go see the hotel doctor and get my head looked at. There’s a bump, I’m still dizzy, but no real damage done. Then I take a swift look around, though not straying far from the hotel. All I can say is that Lagos looks a fantastic place, a shame my twelve day stay is to be cut short to a matter of hours. Nwankwo Kanu is a God there, so my Arsenal allegiance really helped out there, and raised a few smiles. I even indulge myself with room service, after all, it’s there to be used !

The only problem is the currency. Changing a $50 travellers cheque into Niara for a bit of spending money, I found the largest bill they have is N50. Fifty dollars works out to about 5,000 Niara, so you can imagine the size of the wad I was presented with. Nevertheless, the provided plenty of “small change” to give to people, even going as far as getting someone to carry my hand luggage for me at the airport, as the weight of it [a sports bag containing amongst other things, a laptop PC] was beginning to get on my nerves.

The trip back to the airport was an education in itself. Ayo was his usual lunatic self, as were the usual crowd of minibuses packed to the gills with passengers, even hanging out the doors, riding on the running boards, whilst hammering up the motorway. Three-up on a moped was not unusual, and not a helmet in sight. All of a sudden, nine o’clock at night, right in the middle of the motorway, there’s this traffic jam. It’s where the minibuses dropping their passengers off at the shanties there just stop and do their trade. And as we crawl by, there’s crowds, literally crowds of people doing their best to make a living by the roadside, selling anything they can. But there’s no threat, no barely suppressed violence, unlike my experiences from another country.

And then... it’s onto a plane, lovely cuddly British Airways, Shakespeare In Love for the in-flight movie, a COMPLIMENTARY PAIR OF SOCKS [you don’t know how much this means to a man who has washed the same pair in his sink every night for a week], and home at six the next morning. So, Africa on two shirts, two pairs of trousers, a t-shirt, two pairs of underwear and one pair of socks. It can be done. Just listen to the Foreign Office next time. And oh yes, in case you ARE wondering... NO they do NOT drink Um Bongo in the Congo. At least I never saw any, but then I didn’t make a point of asking. So that’s another false advertising claim that’s bitten the dust. However, they do drink Vimto in the Cameroon, but they haven’t quite got round to writing a catchy advertising jingle for that one yet.

Your man in therapy, Alistair Coleman

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