A journal entry prior to leaving for Vienna:
As I’ve been arranging to leave Congo, the realities of this country have become increasingly evident to me. Take for instance, the purchase of an airplane ticket.
I don’t exactly know why, but everything in Congo seems to be difficult, if not, next to impossible. Today our transportation service is having a protest; when they are on strike, life proves even more arduous. And since there’s no transportation today, I walked 1 1/2 hours to and from the airline headquarters. I’m trying to book a flight out of Congo for a brief respite in Vienna. This airline exists solely in the Congo and the headquarters are located in a large concrete building with a tin roof. The office is quite generous, approximately 20 ‘x 30’. Perhaps it seemed even larger because of the stark absence of furnishings. There are two wooden desks, each with three wooden chairs. The main desk has a credenza on which an antiquated, manual typewriter rests. Only one thing on the walls–a world map—which denotes Congo as Zaire and still recognizes Yugoslavia.
The airline representative is named Safari, which ironically means “travel” in Swahili. After engaging Mr. Safari in several rounds of charades combined with a broken mixture of Swahili-French-English, I’m convinced I may never get to leave Congo. In order to get a flight, Safari must use my cell phone to call a satellite office in Butembo (a city 2 hours outside of Beni, from which I will begin my journey). He must verify that there will be room on the plane for me. But the cellular signal is poor awful, so he must retry. Retry. Retry. Retry. He attempts to make this phone call about 13 times over the course of an hour and finally he is able to confirm that there is a seat for me in Butembo. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a cell phone so he relies on mine to do his job. After all these calls, my phone no longer has credit. So naturally, Safari requests $5 and runs out to the nearest stall to purchase another chunk of airtime for my cell. He still must call Bunia (another city) to verify that this leg of the journey has enough space on the aircraft as well. Not less than two hours after first entering this time-warped office, he has confirmed a seat on the plane bound for Entebbe, via Butembo via Bunia, departing next week. Unsurprisingly, this plane only flies 2 days per week because such an antiquated vessel requires a full 5 days of maintenance…very reassuring.
So, how do I pay for my ticket? Cash only. Now when do I receive my ticket? Well, I must wait because Safari’s boss is the only one authorized to issue tickets and the boss, I’ve been informed, has gone out to have lunch. Thus, Safari and I are just chilling, making small talk through that awful mashup of languages…for another 45 minutes. (Did I mention that Congo has been teaching me patience?)
Now when the bossman arrives, he takes the cash and pulls out a small notebook with carbon-transfer paper. He hand-writes a ticket for me and before I know it, I’m leaving the office. And as I leave, ticket in hand and the promise of western civilization soon ahead, I pause to consider the scenario which just took place. How is it that purchasing an airplane ticket can be such an ordeal? Outside of Congo, it takes a mere three minutes to book a flight online. But not here. No internet or online ticketing. No phone system. No electronic printing. No credit cards. Why is this process so anachronistic? What will it take for Congo to emerge from such primitiveness? What propels a society and a civilization forward?