Wednesday, July 21, 2010

the war of luggage

if i may declare one thing about Kinshasa, and that is that the baggage carousel at n'djili airport needs to be lengthened about 14 times its current size.
it is about 20 feet long total. For 200 passengers plus their families, acquaintances, employees, associates clamouring for luggage, this 0.12 inches per person is clearly not enough, and i learned that last time.
moses did not meet us at the airport as i had hoped, instead it was his matriarchal counterpart. a sort of dr. bailey with purple lipstick. normally, moses would be off answering his cellphones and chatting with his friends so i expected to attack the luggage issue myself, but this lady surprised me with a "would you like me to get your luggage, madame?"
she takes me luggage tag receipt, rolls up her sleeves and does a loud finger whistle which attracts 3 eager luggage grabbers. she shouts the baggage tag numbers to them and they disappear into the mob of limbs like those creatures in lord of the rings who can climb vertical surfaces.
after 15 minutes she senses no progress, determines i should help. she grabs my arm and literally shoves me into the human mass. my feet are no longer touching the ground, my weight is supported by the 5 different people spooning me. one of them i find out is my colleague johannes.
hey there!
how did you get here?
i don't know!
there are 3.5 pairs of hands all over me, searching every orifice for money, perhaps my cell phone, but i am smarter than that.
dr. bailey is tring to protect me, complaining loudly in her dialect at everyone who tries to push me, but i am on my own. this is war. we finally float to the front of the crowd and hold our place near the carousel.
there are no bags, just the guy riding the carousel who tries with little effort to push people back. and a few coolers.
some guy in the back screams that's his cooler! which cooler? there are three different ones! they are each extremely heavy, probably packed stiff with meat and vegetables. people team up and pass the coolers over their heads and they are gone.
then there's the box. a plain black box. we wonder what's in that box? it's heavier than the coolers.
i crouch down and look through the little door to see what is behind the scenes and see the guys unloading our plane's luggage from the little trains. they are not unloading the bags directly onto the carousel as you would expect, but forming a random heap which other guys with orange vests are crawling and climbing on. the guys with the vests then get on the carousel and ride a lap, shaking hands with the dudes on carousel island who pull random bags out and hold them there.
there are a few phone numbers exchanged, cool head butt handshakes, and the orange vest guys disappear into the back.
i am not describing to you the 80-odd minutes in between these events but we have seen the black box a hundred times now. i declare that we need to rub the box each time it passes for good luck. the box doesn't really stay in the same place because people flip it and inspect it each time it comes around, perhaps looking for an address label, or maybe rubbing it for good luck. sometimes it's hard to reach it but i make johannes rub it too.
finally, after 3 black box rubs the guys start dismantling the heap onto the carousel.
YES!! here come the bags! this is the most exciting part of my trip. i hug Dr. Bailey and she is holding my hand like we are ready to jump together.
now the people are really shoving. i notice that across from us, people are calmly waiting 3 feet from the carousel with ample space in between them, civilized. oh, and they are all white people. but i will get my bag 5 seconds before they will!! i win! watch me. i grab my bag and get crowd surfed all the way to the door. the little baggage grabber people will not earn their tip today! i give $5 to dr. bailey, float confidently through the crowd of amputees and beggars and SIM card salesmen and find our van with its sleeping driver who has been waiting for 5 hours.
so i guess they could make the baggage carousel at n'djili airport a little longer, but not sure it would be as exciting to arrive to DRC.

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