Departure from Pointe Noire, Congo

My cab departed the hotel and took the back way to the airport to avoid traffic congestion on the main road. The tiny Corolla surged along the sandy road that wound its way through a shanty neighborhood. We passed a group of women sitting in wooden dining room chairs conferring under a large tree, a man who had to take a break after struggling with a pile of wood slung through his two-wheeled cart, and destitute street-side sacks selling apples for 50 francs (about 12 cents).

The airport is a mess of confusion. A baggage handler approached me, began yelling in French and grabbed at my bag. There’s a service in Congo where it’s accepted that the airport has such people to check in for you, grabbing your passport and luggage and allowing you to cut the line. A nominal fee is expected. Having gone through this in Brazzaville and saving only a couple minutes but getting dirty looks in the process, I saw that the line was only a few people, so declined respectfully (or forcefully). The desk clerk said I could check in directly at the gate, and pointed to security. Looking confused, I turned and presented my passport and receipt for the flight to the officer. Muttering something in French, he shouted, “no travel!” I returned to the desk. Now, the same man agreed to check my bag, but still doesn’t give me a boarding pass and instructs a guy who has accompanied me back to the check in counter from the security desk that I am to be allowed through. This time, a new security manager is fronting the line. He yelled something in French, to which my entourage replies, as best as I can tell, that I’m okay. He let me pass.

As I prepared to put my items through the x-ray, I realized there’s no metal detector. I quit fussing with removing all the metal I’m carrying. I attempt to put my bag into the machine, but am cut off by two other people forcing their way though. I oblige. One of them has put a wrapped machete onto the conveyor for examination. I walk to the other side of the machine to collect my bag, but no one is looking at the screen; they’re too busy confiscating hair spray products from the man in front of me. Five bottles in all. The machete and me pass with no problems.

An announcement overhead sends people swarming toward the doors that lead to the tarmac. Pushing and shoving, there is no decorum about the process. It’s like being thrown into a stampede. There’s a foot of room in front of me and someone steps in to fill it. The crowd recedes at another announcement than thrusts again. At this point, the flight is an hour late. I finally squeeze out through the doors and onto the tarmac when a military officer wearing a barret and black Ray Bans stops me. I’m told I can’t go without a boarding pass. I try to explain I was never given one. I wait.

Apparently, as people explain in broken English, the ticket system had broken down just prior to my check in. They tell me to give my name to the agent manning the gate. He scribbles down my first than last. A woman working for the airline explains, “in case something bad happens to the plane.”

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