“Mom, what country would you least want to visit?” Her answer: The Congo.
I think the first time I’d ever even heard of The Congo, was decades ago, as a curious kid, when I was asking my mom general questions about “the world.”
“What country in the whole wide world is the most dangerous?” I think that was the question. Or maybe it was, “Mom, what country would you least want to visit?” It was something along those lines. Her answer: The Congo. So never in a million years, back then, did I think I would ever travel there…on purpose!
Yet here I was, on the way to country #132; the place my Mom awarded the least desirable nation on the planet to visit…and I was going there! Of course, I’d already seen places like Iraq, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan; so even though The State Department classified The Congo as a “Level 2” (Exercise increased caution due to crime and civil unrest), I gotta admit, I was pretty chill about the whole thing. I had more than half of Africa under my belt, so I didn’t think The Congo would be too much of a shock to my system; not like my first trip to Africa. And finally, by now I’d made plenty of fellow-globetrotting friends over the past few years, many who have been, with no problems. I was ready for The Congo.
And oh, by the way, you should know: There are actually two Congos. Republic of The Congo and The Democratic Republic of The Congo (We’ll refer to them as ROC and DOC from now on). I’d go to both on this trip, staring with Congo number one: “The Republic.”
Failure to Launch
I’d been planning this trip for well over a year. This included applying for visas for both Congos, which I heard could be a bear. The DRC was the most complicated, requiring a stamped, signed and notarized letter of invitation to apply. But after taking a friend’s advice to pay for a letter from Kinshasa‘s Pour Vous Hotel, everything was smooth sailing. I’d heard stories of the DRC embassy keeping passports and applications for months, but I received both my ROC and DRC visas in a matter of days, with no snags at all. It was a relief! The air travel, on the other hand, was a completely different story.
It’s no secret that I’ve been able to travel the world–and in business class, for that matter–using airline miles. I have a hobby of signing up for credit cards that offer those obscene mileage bonuses: 40-, 50-, sometimes even 65- or 80,000 miles! The best bonus ever was 100,000 miles. It’s how I’m able to see the six continents of the world, frequently. (Antarctica, unfortunately, is not serviced by any of the major airline alliances).
For The Congo, I transferred some Citi ThankYou miles over to Avianca‘s LifeMiles program, after finding a pretty sweet redemption from LAX to The Congo. 78,000 miles for a one-way business class seat on Ethiopian from Los Angeles all the way down to Brazzaville seemed like a score to me. But some things are too good to be true.
A week out from my trip, I hopped online to confirm all of my flights. Besides my coming and going to Africa, I had a couple of inter-African flights that I needed to check on, including Kinshasa to Bangui on ASKY Airlines and Bangui to Nairobi on Kenya Airlines. If you’ve ever travelled Africa, you probably know that African airlines are notorious for changing flights, cancelling flights, and sometimes simply going out of business entirely. All looked kosher when I checked my flights online, except for one: my first L.A. to Congo flight. It just wouldn’t come up at all online. So I called Ethiopian Airlines to confirm on the phone, and wouldn’t you know it, not only was my flight not happening, but the entire airline had ceased operations from LAX altogether. Sure would’ve been nice to been notified. I’d now have to fly Ethiopian out of Chicago, DC or New York, but the airline could only refer me back to Avianca, since they booked the ticket. Ugh! No surprise at all that Avianca was about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. They refused to re-book/re-route me and simply initiated a claim to refund my miles, which was nice…but certainly wouldn’t get me to The Congo.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Always, always confirm your flights a week or two before your trip.
Wanna know the definition of fun? Trying to book a flight to The Congo three days out. This was not Rome, nor Paris, nor even Montevideo…this was the mother-clucking-Congo!!! I nearly had a nervous breakdown searching for flights to this challenging-to-say-the-least destination: It was either flights that took three full days to get there, or airfare that would result in me taking out a second mortgage on my home. Hours later, I finally found a semi-reasonable fare from New York through Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc. I use the term reasonably loosely. By the time I booked my Congo ticket plus the San Diego to New York flight on Delta, my wallet was definitely feeling used and abused like a hooker on dollar night. But what could I do? I’d totally have canceled the entire trip if I didn’t have so much invested already: non-refundable hotels, tours, visas and those inter-Africa flights. I had to get to The Congo, even if that meant hitching a ride in the bowels of a military helicopter.
Business class on Royal Air Maroc was nice. I loved the small touches like the sexy Arabic music playing as we boarded, and the goodies inside the amenity kit seemed never ending. The food was good, and the ride was smooth. I took a pill to grab some shut eye. I’d land in Casablanca at 8AM and run into the city during my long layover. Check the Morocco page on this website for more on that.
Booking a guide and/or tour in both the ROC and the DRC is prohibitively expensive and the definition of price gouging. I’m never against locals making money form tourists, but there’s a difference between a fair (or even steep) price and then taking total advantage of a situation. I reckon the tourist agencies here know that any foreigner with The Congo on their list has probably got money. I don’t think your run of the mill Vegas or Cancun traveler would ever choose the Congo, even if it was an absolutely free trip. So I’m thinking these tour agencies know it’s only the crazy mofos like me who are coming here. And well, if we have enough money to see the entire world, then they want their “piece.” Of course these are all just assumptions. My point—and the only concrete “fact” here—is that doing just about anything in either “Congo” is pretty much highway robbery, so don’t be surprised when you get obnoxious quotes back from tour agencies.
I contacted a company called Congo Travel and Tours, months ahead, and to my disappointment, they never did manage to get a quote over to me. They have a slick website that offers a ton of cool tours. The descriptions were fantastic and clear. It’s just too bad that after more than three months and multiple email follow-ups, these guys never got a program back to me. Business must be good for them. By the time I was three weeks out from my trip, I was pretty much soured by the whole experience—an experience that didn’t even happen yet! I made one, final hail-Mary move and emailed three other agencies for help, finally getting some good service from a company called Jeffrey Travels. I’d use almost all of their services in the next stop, the DRC, however they’d help me cross the river from ROC to get to DRC. More on that in the next blog (my DRC piece.)
The Congo Dandies
I had one thing I really, really wanted to see in The Congo. Take a guess? If you said the gorillas, you were wrong.
In this area of the world exists a subculture of men dedicated to the art of dressing up. Not in traditional African clothes; not in animal skins nor those crazy masks you’re probably picturing. Rather, these guys prefer designer suits, with all the accessories. Straight out of a 1940s black and white picture show, they wear custom-tailored three- and four-piece suits complimented with all the trimmings, from tie tacks and cuff links to carnations and silver pocket watches. They wear brand-name shoes and cool socks; sometimes a hat, and sometimes even a cane that turns into an umbrella. While there’s a good chance every one of these dapper dudes reside in a shack made of wooden pallets, they spare no expense on looking sharp; flyer than you’d ever look, even at your own prom or wedding. These are the Congo dandies. And I was dying to see these legends.
The proper and local name for the dandies is actually “sapeurs.” The word sapeur, comes from “La Sape,” an abbreviation based on the phrase Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (French; literally “Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People”) and hinting to the French slang word sape which means “clothes” or sapé, which means “dressed up.” Here’s a great article explaining this fascinating subculture.
Here’s the thing: the dandies aren’t just walking around on every street corner to find, meet and take selfies with. They are a special, elite and small group of men; men that you don’t just happen to “run into” while cruising around in a taxi. And while I didn’t have great luck booking tours online (there actually was a specific dandies “tour” listed), over the years I’ve been lucky enough to meet and befriend a few expert travel pros, including one who had an amazing connection in Brazzaville. My buddy Tudor had an in with the dandies and would arrange everything.
In what seems like a plot line from an episode of Locked Up Abroad, Tudor had me bring a special “package” to his dandie friend in Brazzaville: a big cardboard box stuffed to the brim with designer clothes. They were Tudor’s—used, but in great condition—and it was his gift to his dandie friends in Brazzaville. He shipped me the box from his home in New Zealand and I was to lug it over to Brazzaville and present it to his sapeur buddy. In exchange for the “goods,” I wouldn’t be charged the normal fee that foreigners usually pay for a photo session, which can be hundreds of dollars for the privilege of photographing the elusive sapeur. After all, these guys have to make a living too. After a great first night’s sleep at The Ledger Plaza Maya Maya, I stumbled down to the hotel’s poolside restaurant for coffee and a bite and to meet my dandie for the day.
Find your hotel room for Brazzaville using THIS LINK.
A Day with a Dandie
Ely Fontaine greeted me with a huge smile and warm handshake. I couldn’t help but feel like I was meeting a celebrity. And a celebrity he was, in the world of sapeurs and their fans. Ely was dressed impeccably, with a gray designer three-piece suit that looked like it was straight out of a Broadway musical. He wore a red hat, a flower on his jacket and a white shirt with ruffles down the middle; and just enough strategically placed jewelry to bring it all together, connecting every dot with precision. Our interpreter, a young man named Grace, joined us and would help facilitate most of the conversations today. We sipped coffee and petit sandwiches by the pool while we got to know each other. It was kind of a weird relationship, which felt like part-blind date, part-news interview, as we both got to know one another. I was just so grateful a total stranger was taking time out of his week to entertain me for what would be almost a full day. I can’t imagine I’d do this for someone I didn’t know. Ely was friendly, charming and eloquent in every way. After about a half-hour he asked if I’d like to take some pictures and what transpired next was akin to magazine spread photo shoot, minus the giant camera and big lights. Ely walked the imaginary runway alongside the pool while I snapped away with my iPhone.
The first stop on our field trip was Ely’s house. Getting to enter a real Congolese neighborhood and house, as an invited guest was another unexpected treat. Ely posed for pictures on the dirt road outside his home, introduced me to friends on the street, then invited me in while he changed into suit number two for the day.
The Dandy’s Den
His two-room house was tiny but charming, cluttered with piles of designer clothes in every direction. The walls were painted yellow and lime-green and there was a little shelf that made for a bar, packed with bottles of both Congolese and imported spirits, beers and wine coolers. Flashing lights were mounted near the ceiling and I surmised that this place turned into quite the bachelor pad after hours, with the addition of a few guests and the flip of a switch. I could only imagine! I was offered a chair while Ely explored the new “goods” that Tudor had sent me with. I’m pretty sure Ely loved everything but my contribution: I’d threw in what I thought was a pretty fly suit, but it certainly wasn’t from a designer label. I got the feeling Ely might not have too much use for it. I’ll never know.
Ely changed clothes in the second room while another man pressed a suit on a small dining room table that took the place of an ironing board. Minutes later, Ely appeared with look number two for the day, and then I was introduced to Playboy Freddy, who was Ely’s friend and another dapper dandie. It was time to roll.
The day consisted of a half-a-dozen stops as we toured Brazzaville in a small 1980s Toyota Corrolla taxi. I’m not sure who owned it, or if it was rented for the day. Ely gave me the front seat, but after the first stop I insisted on sitting in the back. How could I let my gracious host, a man taller than me, in a three-piece suit for that matter, to be scrunched up in the back with two other people?
We saw lots of the city that day—a really nice taste of Brazzaville—starting at the soccer stadium, the Basilique Sainte Anne du Congo church, and then over to a street lined with the busts of famous Congolese men and women. As the sun was setting, we ducked into a couple riverfront restaurants for pics on the water. Other stops included a little outdoor art gallery, a museum (it was closed) and an outdoor restaurant, which, for some reason was filled with some kind of flying moths. There were literally millions of the flying bugs; so many that you could barely see three feet in front of you. I don’t know if this was an actual attraction itself, but it was fun to walk through.
Brazzaville Social Club
Finally, we found ourselves at a plastic table in an outdoor area as the sun set and darkness fell on Brazzaville. I ordered and slammed down a 40-ounce of Fanta “grenadine” soda, which was probably more sugar than I should have in a month. I should have bought a water, but I salivated at the sight of that big red bottle of diabeetus being displayed in the cooler behind the glass door. Soon the food came out, and I was stuck somewhere in the middle of trying to be polite and saving myself from getting sick from Congolese street food. I mustered up enough courage to try a couple bites of the communal chicken plate, which wasn’t bad except for all the bones. I figured the cooked plantains were a safer bet so I switched to those, eating them very slowly to give my hosts a chance to eat most of the chicken plate. The plan worked.
Welcome to the Players Club
Next, came one of the highlights and absolute total scores of the trip: I was invited by Ely into a real-live Sapeurs show. A locals-only event, these aren’t publicized for outsiders and I couldn’t have found this little joint if I tried. Chez Bif Ex La Marie was a small club nestled in between a whole row of bars and businesses on one of the main drags. Its fluorescent and neon lighting glowed brightly out onto the dark street outside. Ely walked through the club and received countless salutations and handshakes, first from patrons sitting at tables outside, then from people on the inside. He introduced me to all of his friends as I doled out Bon soir after Bon soir. Shaking one man’s hand, I managed to knock over a beer bottle, which came crashing down off the table and onto the cement. CLAAAAAANG!!! Thankfully it was empty, and it was a miracle it didn’t break, but I’m sure if I had any cool points at all, they were lost after that dunce of a move. I don’t know why I was nervous, but I was. I was totally out of my element and all eyes were on me.
Soon we were seated and drinking more soda. This time it was a 40-ounce of Pulp brand orange soda, which I polished off in less than five minutes. Grace ordered me another one and told me to “Slow down” this time.
The music was loud and the DJ on the mic was chatty. Men in suits walked across the stage and posed for the mirror as a warm up to the main event. There was a hand-painted sign on the wall that warned no photographs were allowed, but Grace told me I’d be pardoned and gave me a pass. The show soon started and for the next hour I enjoyed watching a dozen men and two women flaunt their fashion on the runway. Each sapeur’s strut was unique and included a combination of hopping on one leg, twists, turns, jacket twirling and pulling up a pants leg to expose a designer sock. Every presentation included a small speech at the end, to which I understood none of, except for the “thanks for coming tonight” vibe. There were jokes involved, apparent by intermittent roars of laughter and applause from the crowd. It was past ten when the participants wrapped up and I was spent. So was my company; we were all tired from the big day. What a night! Grace and Ely dropped me back at the hotel and we said our goodbyes. What awesome dudes. Did all this really happen?! Scenes like this are from a book.
I awoke the next morning with the meanest soda hangover. I was dehydrated from all the fizzy drinks and had a headache like I’d been drinking hard liquor. I grabbed coffee and breakfast from the hotel and a couple Excedrin and prepared for my exit. I’d be taking a boat across the river to the “other” Congo today and that would be an adventure in itself.
Brazzaville, ROC and Kinshasa, DRC are the world’s two closest capitals, separated only by the roaring Congo River. A port on both sides serves as a conduit between the two countries. I was surprised the Chinese hadn’t started building a bridge between the two nations. Mark my words, it will happen. I’ve discussed this in previous blogs; the Chinese are taking over the world, economically. They’re swooping down into poorer countries with weak infrastructure and building much-needed roads, ports, bridges and other huge game-changers. When the countries where they are building can’t pay back the loans and interest, well, you know the rest. Genius.
Anyway, let’s talk about crossing the border via the river. There are three ways to do it: 1. Do it yourself if you know French. Cost is about ten dollars. 2. Do it yourself if you don’t know French: Cost should still be ten dollars, but who knows how much it will cost and how long it will take without proper communication skills. 3. Hire a guide or fixer to get you across. Cost: anywhere from $50 to $300. My research told me the simple crossing can get extremely bureaucratic, with lots of red tape, lots of forms, lots of passing your passport around and lots of money changing hands. If I had time to kill, this is something I probably would have totally attempted on my own; I love a challenge like this. But I couldn’t afford to lose a day, or even half a day, so I opted to go the fixer route. Jeffrey Travels offered to help me cross for a total of $92. That would definitely be worth saving me the hassle.
I took a cab from the hotel to the port, known to locals as “The Beach.” I was told a man named Romaric was waiting for me there. The taxi let me out beyond the security gate. “The Beach” was more of a walled-off little concrete compound, with nothing “beachy” about it; there was no sand in sight. There were a few one-story concrete buildings, including a duty-free shop and a big metal gate that led out to the riverbank. Upon exiting the car, four or five guys immediately surrounded me, presumably looking for me to hire them—for something—help crossing, help with luggage, changing money, who knows? I told them I was good and they backed off. Problem was, no one named Romaric found me, and I sure didn’t know how to find him. One of the guys on hand was super nice and offered to call Romaric for me. Seconds after he did, Romaric appeared! Props to the dudes at The Beach for helping, They didn’t even ask for a tip; it sure was nice of them to help. It gave me good feelings about ROC and its people. Romaric led me to a wooden chair, next to a desk (outside), took my passport and told me he’d be back. I assume he headed inside one of the buildings to fill out the paperwork. It would take about 40 minutes before we were set to go, but I didn’t mind: I was enjoying watching how business worked at “The Beach.”
The wooden chair I was parked on was next to an old, big desk, with two ladies and a man behind it and they were doing some serious business. I couldn’t tell if they were processing visas, or selling boat tickets, or something else; but they sure had a system going. A giant Xerox machine sat to the left of the table, a printer, scanner and plethora of office supplies sat on top. I watched a family of three exit a taxi in front of us all and proceed to engage in a ten-minute argument with the people behind the desk. There was lots of shouting back and forth. The larger of the two ladies were pissed, while it seemed like the clerks behind the desk remained unbothered. Something was obviously wrong. The people behind the desk were victorious, as the family, defeated, finally got back in the cab and split.
Oh What a Feeling!
Oh, let’s talk about the taxicabs. Many countries have their own unique style of cabs (common makes and models, colors, etc.). For example, old, beat to death Mercedes Benzes in Mauritania, pristine and boxy Toyota Crowns in Japan and those tiny tuk-tuks in Thailand…but I never remember seeing a country with so much uniformity in their cabs than here in ROC. Literally, every single taxicab I saw was a two-tone green and white Toyota Corolla—super old—all from the early 80s (I’m guessing), all with the bubble-lens tail lights. I know this isn’t exciting stuff, but it was interesting to me. Why all Toyota Corollas? Why all the same year? Did they have a huge sale on Corollas that year? They must have gotten a deal on a boat load of ‘em. Not one Kia, Altima, Civic or even a Sentra. Things that make you go hmmmm.
Now Boarding All Rows
Before I knew it, Romaric appeared with my passport and a couple slips of paper and ushered me through the metal gate and onto some sort of big, floating metal barge. Still no “beach” in sight. We hung there for a couple minutes while I tried to sneak a photo and was promptly warned my Romaric, “No photos.” Soon after it was time to board the boat. I’d been really curious as to what kind of craft it would be: a giant ferry or a tiny kayak? It turned out to be somewhere in the middle: an enclosed speedboat that was filled with 23 people including three or four crew members. It was a little tight inside and that made me nervous. If this thing went down, would we even all be able to get out? To my surprise, we all had to wear our lifejackets for the six and a half minute trip. I didn’t mind. Next stop DRC.
And NOW…the REST of the (Insta)Story: