Saturday, June 23, 2012

Restaurant Le Kactus

The first time I visited Congo I was asked if I wanted take-away for lunch. I didn't expect much, but the menu that was presented to me didn't look too French, so I ordered a hamburger and chips. My sister-in-law that time was very much into McDonald's burgers and thought there wasn't anything better. When I received my burger from Le Kactus I was very surprised and rather pleased, I actually send her a picture and told her that I have just discovered the best hamburger...and this was in Congo. Since that day I have ordered many meals at Le Kactus and has never been disappointed. After many years the restaurant still exists and is probably one of the more famous restaurants in Pointe-Noire. If you ever visit Pointe-Noire, do check it out. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Collecting stories for the Madame

A colleague of mine who arrived in Pointe-Noire a few days ago also had her name added to the "lost baggage statistics"-list. She is rather new in the company and has not travelled much in Africa, so the whole experience wasn't very pleasant for her to start with. The worse for her I guess was the fact that she didn't have any extra clothes to wear. Despite the fact that I hardly know Pointe-Noire and cannot speak much French (neither can she), I felt obliged to assist her in getting a few pieces to wear until her suitcase some day arrives. We got a driver who can hardly speak English, but when we mentioned the word "shop" his face lit up, he jumped in the car and off we went. 

After a couple of minutes' drive deep into Pointe-Noire's "informal" shopping area, I started wondering if the word "shop" might not have another meaning in French. My colleague was visibly getting more and more nervous and kept telling me that she didn't feel comfortable. She kept explaining to our driver and he kept nodding his head until he stopped in front of a small shop selling suitcases. I immediately realized that we probably should not have told him the whole story about her lost luggage issue, because the words he actually grasped was not only "shop" but "luggage" as well. I tried another approach and said "clothes" while tugging onto my shirt.  "Ah", he said and off we went deeper into Africa. After another 5 minutes drive he stopped and showed us more shops across the street. He got out with us, took us to one or two shops, but unfortunately they were only selling clothes for men. 

I could see that my colleague was now really upset and wanted to leave immediately. I don't think she was annoyed with our driver's inability to understand her; I think she was getting scared as we were approach by each and every Congolese beggar who thought they could get a few bucks from us. I for one stand out like a sore thumb. This is really annoying and I understood her concern, but at this point we had to find clothes and I was seeing this whole predicament we were in from a completely different perspective. I told her to relax and said: "Listen, don't worry, we are fine. We are busy collecting stories....". I tried my luck again with our driver and said to him "No-no-no, we want clothes NOT for me, for MADAME". "Ah" he said once again and exchanged some French grammar with one of the street vendors. We got in the car again and drove around the next corner where we stopped right in front of a shop which looked like it might be selling the stuff that "Madame" would be interested in.

My colleague didn't buy much, I think at this stage she was too confused and nervous to really shop. There were no changing closets, the whole shop was about the size of a Woolworths' changing room so she had to fit in the air while 5 beggars and 5 shop assistants were watching her every move. On our way back she asked me what I meant by "collecting stories"? I could only explain to her one of my favourite quotes.....

"Tourists bring back souvenirs, adventurers bring back stories"

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Not so very Congolese

A guy I met a few years ago in Gabon told me that in Africa you have to be careful where you stick things in, you never know what you may find. What he was actually referring to was his credit card that he never wanted to stick into any ATM in Africa. Never mind for what he was talking about, it was a good rule to live by for more than one reason. 

This morning I realized that I came to Congo without enough Cefas on me. I usually have dollars on me, but I have used most of it on my previous trips and never 'topped up" again, so I was running low on that too. At least I had enough on me to survive this week if I control my food intake and live on Coke and chips. This morning I went to a bank with a colleague who also needed money. We stood in the queue for about ten minutes and didn't move an inch forward. The bank's money counting machine was broken and the lady behind the window had to count the thickest pack of Congolese notes that I have ever seen in my life one  by one. Add the paper work and African urgency and you are bound to stand there for at least an hour. This was definitely not going to be quick. As a rule and as taught by someone who apparently knew best, I never draw money at ATM's in Africa either. I have done so once or twice in Tanzania, Uganda and Gabon, but I have never done it in Congo. The colleague of mine who comes from another country in Africa tells me that in their country when something is really bad or not working at all, they say it is "so very Congolese". If that's anything to go by then I guess sticking your credit card in an ATM in Congo might also not be wise.

After about 20 minutes I got tired of waiting, so I asked where I could find an ATM. I have two worries when I use an ATM in Africa; one is that my card might be swallowed and I won't get it back and the second is that something might go wrong with the transaction and I won't get my money back. Like the time in Tanzania when the whole process went perfect; I got the statement stating that my withdrawal went through but I never got the cash in my hand to prove it. I had that checked out and fortunately it was corrected within minutes. I don't know how I will explain that in French in a little town like Pointe-Noire, so I prefer to avoid situations like that to happen to me in countries where my lack of communication skills might leave me card-less or cash-less. But today I needed money, the bank was open and I had someone with me who could speak French as a back-up. I stuck my card in and waited a while. It looked like the machine was checking the world over to see if he could verify the account. Then suddenly, in French and English I was instructed on the screen to go ahead with my transaction. I was amazed that it worked, but more for the fact that it was in English too. I drew 50 000 CFA, asked for a receipt and got my money with no problems. I left with a smile on my face. "Not so very Congolese after all" I had to say with a smug face to my colleague when I went back into the bank to find her still waiting to be assisted.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Landing Card Syndrome

There is one thing that still unsettles me a  bit when I travel and that is the moment when we approach a country and the airline crew starts handing out disembarkation cards...or landing cards as it is more commonly known as. For me a landing card is just an association with arriving at a developing country, and I have too many of those in Africa with unpleasant stories attached to them.

For a start I hate filling in landing cards. As with many other type of forms you get either not enough space to fill in what they want to know or you have no idea what they actually are asking for. Secondly I have to get up to find my pen and passport because I keep it my laptop bag and I can never remember my passport information. South Africa also used to have landing cards. Later it was replaced with a SARS or income tax form. The South African Revenue Services wanted to know how much money you bring into the country so that they could tax you. I always lied on these forms and it was never really checked. Not that I ever brought in anything of much value, but I was always too lazy to count the money on me or add up the value of all the gifts I had brought back from abroad. So I just made up a figure. Fortunately this disappeared and now we can also claim to have at least a smoother entry into the country like in most First World countries. The fact remains that filling in a landing card to me is like a reminder that I am entering a country where I know there is going to be some sort of crap coming my way.

This morning I was on my way to Congo and when I saw the crew member walking down the aisle with little white forms in her hand, it was as if reality had struck me once again. You are about to receive an less than pleasant reception! One would think that I am immune to these places by now, but it is that surprise element at these airport arrivals that you just cannot get rid of. It gives you a funny feeling on your stomach when you see the card coming your way. Is my visa going to be OK or are they going to ask me 20 USD because the signature, according to them, looks smudged? Is my Yellow Fever Card yellow enough or does it have to be the brighter yellow? Do they want to see a Ordre d’Mission despite the fact that I needed it for my visa application, or will they request to see another document that I obviously don't have on me? BTW, these are things that I have experienced before, so I am not making it up.

It's been just over a year since I last visited Congo. Every time I leave I hope that it has been my last trip, but I always seem to come back again. Over the past ten years I have seen improvements in the airport buildings, improvements in the departure procedure and the fact that I can now fly straight from Johannesburg to Pointe-Noire on SAA is also a huge improvement. We landed safely and I made my way to Immigration. When you enter the Immigration area some dude who took it upon himself shows you where to line-up and once you have presented your passport and landing card to a usually very unfriendly Immigration officer you are up for your next challenge. By the door as you enter the arrivals hall where the luggage is delivered you still have to face two people in white overcoats who wants to see your Yellow Fever card. Never look lost, that is a sign of weakness that will be exploited by whoever can tell you a bullshit story like that your yellow fever card is not the right colour. After that you enter the arrivals hall where there is always a huge commotion going on. It always seems as if there are already more people hanging around the carousel than the actual amount of passengers disembarking. This “welcoming crowd” are just police officers, custom officials and luggage handlers; not friends and loved-ones. They are waiting outside. Make sure you grab your own bag before a luggage handler does otherwise you might have to negotiate a price to get it back.

Before you can finally leave you have to show your baggage tag to guys dressed in blue and white uniforms. I'm not sure where they fit in, might be airport personnel. Finally you have to open your luggage at Customs for a manual search. By the time I walked towards Customs I've already heard of two passengers who didn't receive their luggage. I guess getting to Customs unscathed could've been considered a "good day" for me then. The only worry I had left was that I was told earlier by someone that they have a new restriction on bringing in food. Apparently there is a new "import tax" on food, 10 Euros for whatever you have on you. I had some sachets of instant coffee, instant soup and a chocolate with me.... worth about 10 Euros in total. I was not going to pay a 10 Euro "food tax" on something that cost me around 10 Euros in the first place. Fortunately for me as I opened my luggage, the Customs official was distracted and she never checked long enough to see what I had "stashed" in my luggage. I received my white chalk signature on my suitcase and I was good to go. 

Although the arrival today was very simple compared to what I have been through in the past, I am sure that they can also start using computers and do away with the landing cards at least. That should give me a few minutes longer before I get that knot in my tummy.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Stop the Clock!

Surely if you have been living for more than ten years in one of the 10 most loved cities in the world you would've visited and seen all the tourist attractions that the city has to offer? Wrong. 

Yesterday I decided that I needed to get out of the office for a while and instead of seeking my consolation in a Latte from my favourite coffee shop around the corner, I decided to go check out the Noon Gun on Signal Hill. If you are not familiar with the Noon Gun, then in short I can tell you that most Capetonians have heard it at least, if they have not seen it. The same for me. I have been wanting to go check it out when it fires at noon ever since I've moved to my new office at foot of Signal Hill. So at 11h40 I jumped on my bike heading up to Signal Hill hoping to take a short clip of one of the oldest rituals in Cape Town that has taken place every day since 1902. Except for Sundays and Public Holidays of course. I should have timed it better because in my rush to get there in time I left my wallet and phone at the office for which I had to turn back.  I also got myself lost in exactly 3 Cul-de-Sacs in the Bo-Kaap area. I know the way to Signal Hill, but I was taking all kinds of short-cuts which didn't help at all. 

I arrived at the top of Signal Hills at 11h55, which I suppose could have given me just enough time to reach the gun. It was like a game of treasure hunt and I was just about to shout "Stop the Clock!" when I realized that I might be at the wrong place. I asked around a friendly staff member from Cape Nature Reserve told me that the gun is not on Signal Hill but rather halfway down Signal Hill. I had to go back and approach it from the City Centre side. I was definitely not going to make it and stopped on my way back at a spot where I could see the smoke and hear the gun, but not close enough to take any worthwhile pictures. What I did take instead was a few picture of the amazing view from Signal Hill. I will visit the gun at a later stage and make sure that I have plenty of time to get there and enjoy my popcorn while I watch something that has happened in Cape Town over 62 000 times already. I am sure the tradition will continue for a few more years to come....

Friday, June 8, 2012

No Sissies Here

The latest addition to my T-shirt collection....