Saturday, 23 May 2009

Still stuck in the Congo (Waiting for a visa)

I was so busy writing about mud in the last entry I forgot to say anything about the country! Not at all as expected, when people think of either of the Congos they normally think of war, corruption, poor infrastructure and chaos. After crossing the border we passed though some small villages receiving the most frantic waving yet, I thought some of the kids were going to fall apart they were waving so violently. As soon as the shouts started people poured out of their houses to take a look and wave as we drove through. Most amusingly we entered one village to be spotted by a child who started screaming "Touriste, touriste" (French African accent required). The customs post was really beautiful, in the middle of nowhere and everything built from natural materials, not a sheet of corrugated iron in site. Officials were friendly and chatty.

Brazzaville has been most unexpected, apart from the manic driving, it's a calm, peaceful city. Probably my favourite capital so far in Africa. Hippocampe was well placed and we walked everywhere, people were friendly and helpful, and we had no problems with officials at all.

We had a few more days at Hippocampe sorting things out, we got the car fixed and greased and had a few other chores. We had been regretting our decision not to get the Angolan transit visa in Abuja for a while. Our hopes had been raised slightly by Roy and Michelle who said it was now easy to get it in Brazzaville, we heard otherwise at Hippocampe.

For those who don't know, the Angolan government likes making it really hard to get into the country. The only places to reliably get a visa in Africa north of Angola are Abuja in Nigeria and Matadi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Even then, unless you wait three weeks for a tourist visa you only get 5 days to travel 2000km on bad roads, very few people manage. We still had Matadi to go through before reaching Angola, unfortunately the DRC immigration at the Kinshasa ferry terminal don't let tourists into the country without proof of onward travel, for example, an Angolan visa. We bypassed the visa in Abuja hearing that the problems on the DRC border were over, but apparently not. So, we now couldn't get into the DRC without an Angolan visa, and couldn't get an Angolan visa without getting into the DRC. We thought we'd try our luck at the embassy in Brazzaville. We dressed in our finest clothes (such as they are) and managed to get through the door which is apparently a feat in itself. They asked for a letter explaining what we wanted and why, various photocopies and three passport photos each. We provided all this that afternoon, sat in the reception for an hour or so, with Florian who'd volunteerd his portuguese skills, only to be told they'd call us to let us know if we could apply for the visa. we weren't holding out much hope so switched to plan B. We would create a fake shipping receipt, saying we would ship the car and ourselves from Matadi around Angola, directly to Namibia, therefore no visa required. After a bit of work and internet plagiarism we had a beautiful shipping receipt. Peter, another overlander, who had just thrown his worldly possessions in the back of a pickup after finishing a contract in Algeria and started driving south happened to have a printer with him which was handy, so we worked together to produce something that looked vaguely official so we could try and cross the border with Florian and Sarah the next day.

The Brazzaville - Kinshasa ferry is infamous for its chaos. We arrived at the port and everything was incredibly disorganised, it seemed to take us forever to find and finish the formalities required to leave the country. Eventually the ferry docked at Brazzaville, hundreds of disabled people started rushing through the gates, some being grabbed by the police and dragged back, others being hit with sticks. I believe that disabled people travel for free on the ferry, so they are used for all the imports/exports between the two countries. I have no idea why there needs to be complete chaos when they disembark however.

We sent my mum a text saying we were trying to cross and asked her to get in contact with the British Embassy in Kinshasa to brief them and see if they could help if there were any problems. They said to just give them a call, so it was nice to know we had a backup plan. We'd tried the consulate in Brazzaville, they said they wouldn't be able to help until Monday, today was Wednesday - I hope no one ever requires urgent help from them.

Eventually it was our turn to get on the ferry, Hannah was evicted from the vehicle and for some unknown reason had to walk onto the boat. The ferry was still being unloaded from the trip over, at the same time as being loaded for the coming journey. How does this work?! I think the English are inherently bad at the African 'queuing' system. The guy guiding me onto the ferry was getting angry that I wasn't just driving through crowds of people, I was just a little concerned about killing someone. Slowly but surely we crawled through the chaos and onto the ferry. Once on things were much calmer, safely locked in the car. The ferry set off and we were on our way.

The journey across the mighty Congo river itself was fairly painless, then everyone started pushing towards the front as we neared Kinshasa. Surprisingly, Kinshasa seemed much more organised with people slowly disembarking while being whipped by a policeman. Hannah and Sarah were once again evicted from the cars (but escaped a whipping), then passports and carnets were requested and promptly disappeared in different directions. Flo and I were left on the boat with the cars wondering where our passports, carnets and girlfriends were, all three fairly important components of the trip. We were eventually led off the ferry and into parking spaces. I got out the car and Hannah walked over "I've already been asked about Angola". The visa was the first thing they looked for when we arrived. Florian and Sarah had their visas so they were ok.

Florian and Sarah started the very slow immigration process with a grumpy looking man in a mustard shirt, in the meantime someone walked into the office asking if anyone had jump leads as the chief's car wouldn't start. Willing to try anything to get into the country I volunteered myself, jump leads and car (though possibly not the best plan given that Stanley himself had had to be jump started that morning). Hannah started our immigration proceedings without me, I returned to the office to find the shipping receipt being scrutinised by the chief. They clearly found this mysterious boat they'd never heard of slightly confusing. We explained how it would all work, we'd avoid Angola and didn't need a visa for Namibia, they eventually seemed to accept it. Hannah was slowly winning round Colonel Mustard and he was now smiling. He then disappeared with passports and our shipping receipt, the phone number on the receipt was wrong so they couldn't check it, although I suddenly realised they could phone Matadi port to check if the boat existed. I started to get concerned they might be doing just that. The door opened, two policemen were standing there with serious faces, then smiles broke "Bonjour", they were looking for the chief and left. It felt like this was taking forever. Eventually Colonel Mustard returned, handed passports to Florian and the shipping receipt to Hannah, "C'est bon". I breathed a sigh of relief, we were in!

Next step was the now famous disinfectant scam. All foreign vehicles entering Kinshasa port have to be "disinfected" at the cost of $60 per vehicle. This is all incredibly well done, and clearly set up by someone quite high up. They all have nice uniforms, even an office in the port, books of regulations and price lists. Frank, who we'd adopted / had adopted us to help us through the border was an absolute legend. He'd been helping us every step of the way and sprung straight to our defence. Still, there was a big steel gate between us and the outside world and we were going nowhere until an agreement was reached. We decided to try the British Embassy, Frank sorted us a phone and I called them, the phone was answered in a perfect British accent, "I'm sorry, there is nobody available to take your call right now....", that wasn't going to work. After lots of arguing we eventually agreed on $40 per vehicle as we really just wanted to get out of there. Just as they started spraying the vehicles they asked if anyone was asthmatic. I had asthma as a kid and saw an opportunity here, they conceded they couldn't spray our vehicle. Fantastic I thought, that saves some money. No, we still had to pay apparently, but it was alright they said, they'd give us a receipt as if that was the most important thing. What I hadn't realised was that Flo had already gone off to hand over the money. We just had to accept that the money had gone to the big black hole of African corruption as we really wanted to get out of there. We'd already spent 8 hours crossing the border (with just 40 minutes of it actually crossing the river) and just wanted to settle down somewhere for the evening.

The following day we left Flo and Sarah in Kinshasa and headed towards Matadi, hoping to get our visa application in that day as it was a Thursday, and the weekend was fast approaching. We arrived at the Angolan consulate in Matadi shortly after 3pm, the Chief had left at 3pm so we couldn't put our application in. We asked if it was possible to get it the same day on the Friday. It was possible, but it's not the secretary's decision so he couldn't promise anything. We were told to turn up at 9am the next day with various photocopies and a letter requesting the visa. The weather closed in overnight and we returned in the pouring rain at 9am as requested, the guard said the secretary wouldn't be in till 11am. We sat in the car for a couple of hours playing rummy, returning to speak to the secretary shortly after 11, he was now there. It was still possible that we could get the visa today, but the ambassador hadn't come to work because it was raining, she doesn't like getting her clothes wet! A few hours later with the rain still falling we were told we couldn't get the visa and would have to return on Monday. This was annoying for two reasons, firstly we'd have to spend the weekend in Matadi, and secondly we would now miss the arrival of Hannah's brother in Windhoek - the deadline we've been working towards for the last month.

We were staying at a convent in Matadi, camping in the courtyard. All very pleasant, except on the Friday morning we were evicted at 6:30am as the kids were turning up for school. We returned that evening requesting to stay another three nights due to visa issues, they told us of some people who stayed for two weeks. On the Saturday morning we weren't evicted, although despite being a Saturday the kids still turned up for school. I guess they'd been told about us and the fact we were English as they kept walking past saying "Hello". They then got a little more brave and a few of them started saying "What is your name?", and "How are you?". I think this was the limit of their English however, and after half an hour of being asked the same questions over and over by the same kids it got a little tiresome!

Monday eventually arrived with a blazing sun, we got to the embassy at 8:45am, the secretary was in, but no sign of the chief yet, 10am, 11am, eventually at 11:45am "madame" turned up. In the mean time we'd made friends with the gardener who used to work on a British ship, and therefore spoke pretty good English. He kindly offered to get us some pawpaws. Eventually at 12:30 we were called into the office, got asked the usual visa application questions, and then the names of parents, all our brothers, sisters aunts and uncles - what do they do with this info?! We were then told we wouldn't be able to get the visa today and would have to return at 11am tomorrow.

We returned to the convent asking to stay another night, a little annoyed to say the least! Cheered up slightly when the gardener, Alfonse, from the Angolan embassy turned up with all the pawpaws we'd forgotten to get off him earlier, all seven of them! We had some to be eaten as you or I would normally eat a pawpaw, and some "green pawpaws", which we were told to use in the same way we would a potato. We'd had storm clouds brewing to the east every night in Matadi, we'd been clipped a couple of times, but the clouds tonight were looking a little more threatening. Alfonse said it was going to be the last rain of the year and rushed off as we listened to it slowly approaching over the roofs of Matadi. Yet another truly spectacular storm flooding the entire courtyard at the convent, and as we left the sunroof open it flooded Stanley too! That night we made a curry with fried green pawpaw, it was really quite tasty.

Tuesday came, we got to the embassy at 9am hoping they might be willing to give us our visas, no, we had to sit and wait. Madam was clearly up a little early, she dragged herself in for 10:30am. Eventually at 11:45 we were called into the office and our passports were returned with visas. We were cheered up slightly on seeing we actually had 6 day visas starting today, so with half a day lost we'd still have 5.5 days to rush through Angola rather than the 4.5 we'd been expecting. I do wonder why we had to wait 5 days for a sticker to be stuck in a passport and a couple of dates to be written on it.

We rushed out the embassy, into the car and set a course for Luvo, where we'd cross to Angola. Apparently the road is much better than the one from Matadi. May the great race across Angola begin.


Blogger Seth said...

Thanks for the great info on this stage of your trip; can I ask a quick clarification question--I'm heading this way overland by public transport in the next few weeks. I have a DRC tourist visa, but am hoping to apply for the Angola visa in Matadi. Do I fall into the same category as you guys, and are there likely to be problems on the ferry such as you had? I'm wondering if maybe you had transit visas for DRC, or if perhaps it was the fact that you had a vehicle that was the issue. Any advice would be very gratefully received,



9 July 2009 at 19:24  
Blogger Will Calderwood said...

I'm afraid you'll fall into the same boat as us, we had tourist visas. It depends on who's working on the day, we spoke to people who'd crossed a couple of days after us with no visa and it wasn't even mentioned.

I've since heard a better way of dealing with the situation is to get a letter from the Zambian embassy in Brazzaville to say you can get the Zambian visa on the border claiming that's the route you'll take out, then just head down to Matadi and get the Angolan visa once across the border.

Good luck.

14 July 2009 at 10:15  

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