Having successfully settled into my hotel the room, my real adventure begins to with my first day of work. From what I’ve seen already my imagination is running wild with what to expect from the next week here. None the less it’s time to get moving so I jump in the shower, brush my teeth (with bottled water) and head downstairs hoping to actually find my driver today. In what should have come as a surprise my driver was actually there, waiting for me in the lobby. This car was only slightly better than the last, the driver still doesn’t speak English so it’ll be a quiet ride to the office. On my way I’m humbled by the bustling, active city all around me and the lengths to which it appears this city’s residents will go to earn the all mighty dollar.
After my humbling 15 minute commute to work where I can tell people here have already been up for hours and the primary mode of transportation is by foot I arrive at a heavily guarded facility. Apparently I’ll be sharing my offices with the UN, they have guards stationed everywhere and even though I’m feeling much more comfortable in my environment, it’s still pretty reassuring knowing they are there. Work begins just trying to translate why I’m there and who I’m looking for. The first guard doesn’t speak any English at all and needs to find someone else for me to explain myself to. Eventually I find who I’m looking for and I’m lead back into a “bull pen” style office that is actually much nicer than I was expecting. They give me a desk in the middle of it all and let me get setup, I get connected to the internet only to find out this telecommunications provider doesn’t have a connection any better than the wicked fast speed from my hotel room, I remind myself I’m just miles away from some of the densest jungles on the planet.
So I’ll spare you the details of my work there only to say that I truly enjoyed working with them, everyone I worked with was very upbeat and loved to joke around, one of them even wrote us an iDashboards song! Definitely worth mentioning however, was lunch. As you might expect this because food is somewhat of a concern for me, what on earth was I going to do for food here! This is my first real situation where I might need to venture outside my comfort zone a little and eat some goat heart or whatever my preconceived notions and wild imagination could come up with. Instead, completely surprised, they had a catering company come in every day with freshly prepared food for their employees, and even better? They subsidize lunches for their employees, and in my case that subsidization is 100%, lucky me! Nearly every day was an option for chicken thighs, whole baked fish, and plantains, from there things started getting a little strange. Each day I tried something new, and unfortunately can’t articulate any of what I ate mostly courtesy of the language barrier. After seeing their river a nice deep brown color, I decided the one thing I might avoid while there is anything that came out of it. So in addition to lunch every day, I also build up enough confidence to start walking around on my lunch breaks. Most of the time it was just an excuse to get some bottled water and other supplies from a local grocery store. Although this always seemed to involve fending off street peddlers selling everything from tissue packs to semi-dead pigeons. These walks were always interesting, the looks I got from locals being a blonde, fair-skinned American were often times the best part of the walk.
As great as work in the Congo was, my off hours became more and more interesting each day I spent there. As it happened, there were a couple of guys from South Africa also staying at my hotel working in the IT department with me so at the end of the day we typically headed down to the pool most nights for dinner and Turbo King! What is Turbo King you ask? Well let me tell you, Turbo King may not be the best beer you’ve ever tasted in your life, but the fact that it’s called Turbo King and is only available in 40 ounces makes it good enough! Now apparently this is a strong beer, so Africans were pretty impressed when I ordered it, and of course I covered up my ignorance perfectly and played it off like I knew that. This night also happened to be the same night some of the guys I was working with wanted to take me out to the club in downtown Kinshasa. Fortunately I’d spent enough time there that I was comfortable with the proposition and decided to take them up on it. They picked me up in a 20 year old Mercedes Benz C class, probably the nicest car I rode around in while I was there… Flying through the downtown area I had to stop and ask them about their driving laws in the city, their response? Laughter… I should have figured considering the closest thing to a traffic light in this city was what we dubbed the “human traffic light”, a man standing on a pedestal in the center of an intersection and even these were few and far between. For the most part driving in the Congo requires a sick sense of humor and a relentless ability to play chicken with everyone on the road. So finally after about a 15 minute drive we pull down and ally and park in front of a club oddly enough called Black and White. So we headed in and the place was a ghost town, I was reassured that this was the place to be though and we were just early. So what does one do in a club in the Congo when you show up early? Order a Turbo King and take it all in. As the night progressed people really did show up and the club got very busy. So I learned a few things in this club. Number 1: Africans LOVE to dance, especially to salsa music, and they’re very good at it. Number 2: Africans love American Hip-Hop. The club was a great experience, and I never felt uncomfortable or out of place once. At no point before I left for this trip did I think I would be relaxing in a club downtown having a beer and hanging out.
As my trip drew to a close I was feeling disappointed the whole thing went by so quickly. The people I worked with were awesome, and my list only continued to grow of things I wish I had more time to do while I was there. The last night we decided to head back down to our pool area again for dinner and some drinks, even some of the guys from the office showed up again to hang out. The next morning here I am wondering again if my driver is going to show up, and exactly what I can expect trying to get out of the country. Fortunately they did show up, and only 15 minutes late, hopefully we don’t run into any traffic jams! So this ride to the airport was a totally different perspective from the first, I can definitely tell you that my first driver definitely took the scenic route and I only wish I’d known I could take pictures on the way from the airport because this ride wasn’t half as interesting. None the less we made it to the airport where I was held ransom for $50.00 which apparently is some sort of departure tax. Doesn’t matter who you’re flying with or what kind of ticket you purchased you better have some money for them. This time, TiGo had provided me someone to take me through the airport as well which was quite nice, I’m pretty sure without her I might have been taken advantage of in that airport. So now I get to sit for the next 45 minutes in a terminal that feels more like a dehydrator, to say it was hot and sweaty doesn’t do it any justice, they didn’t even have fans to move the air! Finally our aircraft was ready so I headed out to get on the plane only to be stopped because I didn’t have my receipt for the $50.00 tax I paid and I was stopped on the tarmac from boarding the plane. Over the course of the next 20 minutes they spent time calling the front desk to verify that I had paid it (apparently my escort was supposed to fill out a form with my name on it). Eventually I think they just got frustrated with the situation and just let me on the plane, but not before I could wonder if I was even going to get out of here or not without coughing up another $50.00. So back on a plane, time for another 30 hours of travel time, and a nice long layover in Kenya, and no that airport doesn’t have air conditioning either. All in all, I must say this was the trip of a lifetime, and I would certainly encourage anyone with the time and an opportunity to travel to Africa to take and leave any preconceived notions at the door.
Jason Wolan, Technical Consultant, iDashboards