Tuesday, June 10, 2014

the congolese perfection of: CONFUSE & DIFFUSE

ooooh boy have these congolese...so sneaky!....conniving!...masters at the art of confuse and diffuse. this is a process i invented! i am almost in awe.

my current defeat before the civil aviation administrion was met with one glimmer of hope on my last day. i got our office director to make one last threatening phone call to argue our case. before he can even finish a sentence the director says, "but why are you calling, we have a meeting later today, we can talk face to face." wha? we have been trying to get a meeting all week but they have been avoiding us. so of course our guy says, yeah sure, we know about the meeting, see you then.
but we have no idea when the meeting is. this is their strategy, then they can say we never showed up. zing. so sneaky. so i send our driver over to their offices to sniff it out. he goes to the front desk and glances over the book. it's at 4 pm. oddly late for a meeting, but perfect. all the time in the world to plan.
but gahh, like before any meeting you have to herd cats. where is the driver, he was just here, why did he go out now to buy phone credit, who has the keys, these are the wrong keys, why does this car have no gas and piles of bags of rubber boots in it, do we have all the documents etc...it's madness. so we go. the plan that we amass as many white people as we can to just fill his tiny office. i grab the south african guy who doesn't even speak french. he's tying his shoes, come on Buddy! or we'll leave you behine!

the director of CAA is not happy, he speaks very softly, you can barely hear his voice over the noisy air conditioner. he gets feisty, saying we haven't followed protocol. what protocol? and then he weaves through the process, perfectly confusing us...but we did that...we sent that letter...you already received that...but we...then he changes the steps, saying that comes after this step and before that step but in between the middle step and by the end we have no idea what the heck is going on. drats. he says there is one critical letter missing. i turn to my logistics guy, seriously serge, out of the 50 letters we sent last week, i recall writing that letter..the director says he never saw it. we don't have it with us. crap.
so where do we stand now?

"but your permit to import the plane has been approved, all your paperwork is in order." which is a distinct change from the tune we heard yesterday. but who cares! we are happy! success! i grab the folder, scan it over, all stamped and stuff, looks good! the plane can start flying here tomorrow! woohoo!

back at the Office I scan the import permit...wait, it has the wrong license number for the plane. if we bring "a different" plane they will not let it in. fffffuuuuuuu%&$%.
the project manager goes through our files and finds the letter the director says he never received - it is stamped with his signature, dated more than a week ago. double fffffuuuuuu%&%.

we've been totally outsmarted.
it is now 17h30. of course the offices are closed now. director is gone for the day and probably won't show up until 11 am tomorrow. we will lost another 48 hours on this.

i have to commend them for their brilliance in deceiving us. even i wouldn't have thought of that...oh, you win this round, congo, but this is not the end!! now i want to fight more than ever!!  

Monday, June 9, 2014

another last night in kin

my flight was scheduled for tomorrow. we have no flight permit, i have done nothing but chase people around for the past 2 weeks, the whole thing a failure. one guy. one single guy is blocking the paperwork because he didn't get his share. he wants 2,000 USD, which i would pay if we had the money but our safe is just empty. the plane from south africa has cash, but since it can't arrive, forget it. we are going to have to go up the ladder, get the ministry of transport involved, the german embassy. my sweet korean project manager is begging me to stay another week to help move things along. 
i go back to civil aviation to try and meet with someone, when i arrive the doors shut delicately, just like my invtroverted cousin who would rather play video games than say greet family. on the way back, without asking, my driver stops at the air france office. "go in and see what it costs to stay." i go in, halfheartedly  meandering among the people wrapping up their bushmeat and illicit wares. i go to the counter where you are meant to take a number. there's a bowl of folded paper, like it's a raffle. i sift for the smallest digit, 10!  i sit and wait and check my blackberry. my colleague who flew out sunday sends me an email how he caught a man checking in 2 ivory tusks at this very place. he chased him for 3 hours at charles de gaulle only to have the authorities say, "sorry, he's in shengen now, nothing we can do." he is writing to me from the hospital, he has dengue. "don't you just love your job?" 
i go to the desk with a guy reloading the paper in his dot matrix printer. he eagerly helps me, all excited because there is another shapiro on the flight, a man named avi, do you know him?
it only costs 100$ to change until thursday. i think about my cats, my balcony. i say i'll come back and pay with cash, i don't have enough on me anyway.
the rest of the day is more frustrating phone calls, getting nowhere. i went to lunch with a woman on mission here, and has not been feeling well and her hair is falling out. the stress. 
the tradition on my last night is to get everyone to go to limoncello, so i reserve a table for 12 at the fancy overpriced italian restaurant run by my former roommates maria and filiberto. 
i am the first one there, i order a bottle of pinot grigio. i get a message from marie, she and her boyfriend got pax'd this afternoon! it's like a civil wedding thing in france, turns out they got a last minute appointment on pentecost monday, usually a holiday. what's better is that he has a beard and long hair and looks like jesus so it's a match made in heaven, pardon the pun. something else to celebrate. ooh and not only that, they tell me the french embassy servers got grilled in the power outage on sunday, they lost all their data, which means no one gets their visas, which means my flight will be empty. double whammy. 
everyone shows up and we are trying to explain the pax.
"marriage by fax?"
"can it be undone?" 
"c'est du concubinage ou quoi?"
lots more wine. the taboo topic is the flight permit, which all my friends/colleagues know is just not the thing to talk about. the food is delicious, service is slow, as usual. my feet are eaten to bits by mosquitos. people are making toasts about marriage. it's grand. 
tonight is the first time we just split the bill and we actually have a surplus, which never happens. so we order rounds of whiskey. 
a few tables over, i see maria and filiberto sharing a pizza like newlyweds. i go to say hi, maria's hair is marvelous, she looks years younger. filiberto on the other hand looks hunched over, like my grandmother after her stroke. makes me sad. one of his eyes is droopy and he has spilled pizza sauce on his nice shirt. they ask me about the infamous plane. i tell them my trials and tribulations, civil aviation are a bunch of thieves. filiberto goes "shush! the president's pilot is sitting behind you!" i turn around to see a fat lebanese and some congolese splitting a bottle of johnny walker. if i had the nerve i would drop my business card and turn on the charm but there's no opening. i turn back. maria starts on her tirade about how much this country is broken, nothing works, all crooks, it's worthless! filiberto grabs my arm "you need to persevere! we stayed through the thick of it, look at us now! congo needs you, don't give up!" he stops the waitress and we toast to shots of delcious home made limoncello. "come back and see us! the italians will win the world cup! congo will be waiting for you!" ciao, ciao. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

this makes no sense

i was invited to papi's house for dinner. his wife mami made just about every congolese dish imaginable. it was nuts. 3 kinds of fish, foufou, beef, chicken, pundu etc. etc..and lots of beer and whiskey. i think they were trying to set me up with someone because a lot of male suitors kept coming through the door. but i was distracted. at 9pm i was meant to receive a call telling me the landing permit for my plane was approved, which meant i could continue to drink and be happy and eventually leave for germany on tuesday. but no, instead i got a call at 1130 which said i wouldn't get the permit which made me sullen and surly.
we eventually got talking about the whole situation of how f'd up the DRC is, and no one in the room could understand why the democratic republic of congo would make it so difficult for us, the german government, to give them what is essentially a 6 million € gift of airplane and satellite data to map the vast amount of forest carbon in this country, which exactly what they need to bring additional carbon investments like the 60 million $ from the World Bank, which is enabling them to get paid to protect their forests. which is almost like getting paid to do nothing, which congolese are so good at!! but nothing in the congo makes any sense.
earlier in the day, i went to civil aviation to try and meet the director again, who has been avoiding us because we busted his secretary trying to swindle us by providing a false invoice. as i was at the entrance filling out the stupid form you have to fill out everywhere with your passport number, which, i don't even have on me, i just make it up - but as i was doing so the director walked right behind me. my driver serge pulled aggressively at my elbow and i was all cut it out dude, you're messing up my handwriting, but it was too late, he slipped out behind me and got into his car, gone for the weekend. crap, 10 seconds difference and we could have cornered him in the parking lot. 
so next stop, the agency in charge or the airports and airways to determine how the areas we plan to fly with our plane might overlap with sensitive, strategic or dangerous areas. like military bases and stuff. we were told that this information, like anything in the congo, would not come cheap, and that we would probably have to pay on the order of $2,000 to get them to analyze all our different flight lines and tell us which ones to change. which actually makes sense, because it's kind of a lot of work and the whole thing is pretty complicated.
so we go to what is essentially this bombed out building at the local airport with dark corridors and flickering neon lights. the signs on the doors are all inkjet printed, with ink running down from the leaks in the ceiling, and poor vertical paragraph design like:
ice des
s et infr-
we had gotten stuck in some pretty harsh traffic, (though i got to see a whole street i didn't know with bedsheet tents on the sidewalks, which i mistook for refugee camps but discovered were actually barber shops, all narrated by serge's typical political rants), so it was 430pm on a friday when we arrived. we were lucky to find anyone still there at all. we got shuffled around from office to office but the dudes we ended up with were surprisingly friendly and helpful. ok, of course they werre flirty and sexist and asked for my number and invited me to go dancing but i am used to these things. these were some high level guys with a giant 8 foot wide map of the world from the 70s on the wall saying "i can't believe this is your first time here! welcome! we love animals!" i explained our situation and he actually called back his employees who were already at the bus stop on their way home. he told one of them to bring the table of prohibited, strategic and regulated airspaces. i look to serge like, ok, let's make sure we get a receipt for this and the guy is all, so this is what you need? let me make you a copy. and thank you, please come again! and that's how i ended up with a list of every military base, training area and strategic zone in the DRC (which admittedly has lots of typos, because there is no where on the planet that is 454 degrees S, but whatever), which i will glady sell to any chinese reading this blog. yaweh! 

Friday, June 6, 2014

the weekend news...

civil aviation has still not signed our landing permit so the plane is waiting in Angola. i figure they are all busy splitting up our cash between them, they don't have time to do their work. it is friday. if it can't come tomorrow it must wait until monday. i can't leave until this friggin' plane gets here. they might as well have confiscated my passport because i am stuck :(

i found a new place to play tennis! it's the Cercle de Kinshasa, with it's super fancy restaurant and golf course. they call it the little kindgom of Belgium. same price as the Grand Hotel but there are huge palm trees, lots of species of bats that swirl around my lobs, waiters in tuxedos, and lights! and clay courts that are flat! no hills of rocks or sand! they sell balls for 4$ each. and the ballboys have shoes and pick up the balls with their hands, rather than kicking them up with their feet like a Soccer ball. if a ball goes over the fence, they actually go and get it, rather than just giving you a dead brown one as a replacement. they actually know how to keep score, in French, not lingala. it's like Roland Garros over here, people! and i should totally bring tania to play in the annual Shoreham-Wading River Labor Day Tennis tournament on Long Island, which is the longest running tennis tourney in the world. Because if these old Country Club geezers are already freaked out by jews, and my swedish stepmother who thinks outside the box, i can't wait to see their faces when we put an African on our team!

the crocodiles do not like canned tuna. why? they loooooove cockroaches though and boy do we have plenty of those! nom nom nom.

of the 20 or something books my stepfather has given me over the years, Stringer is the first one that isn't mind numbingly boring!! it's super fun to read about all these places i know and go to, there are even people i know, and what's even more - the conspiracy theories surrounding our very own conservation Ppojects. Makes you wonder though..USAID = CIA? probably!

papi invited me to his house for dinner. i've known him 7 years but i have never been to his house to meet his wife mimi, or their new baby. he asks me if his to eat european. never say yes when a congolese offers to cook "european." it means you get a lump of overcooked pasta, no seasoning, nuthin. they don't even salt the water. no understanding of the concept of pasta sauce. naturally i want to eat home made congolese food. though my stomach has been a bit iffy today, this should just about do it for me for the weekend, which i will likely spend on the toilet. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

there is no more line between right and wrong

i met one of those old french expat guys who have lived in just about every country in central africa. and what does he say? that DRC is by far the shittiest, dirtiest, corruptest, unbearable place on the planet. tell me something i don't know buddy
marie's landlords have a little basin next to the house with fish, turtles, and adorable baby crocodiles in it. they are so cute! every 2 days they get hungry and come to the door and make little puffy noises.
[so side story is that we came home from the club late on saturday night, kinda hungry and i find marie in the kitchen hacking at a raw fish. i say, "wow, totally gross, you've really gone congolese on me!" but no, it's for the crocs!]

here crocky crocky

back to the crocs. every two days you dump pieces of raw fish onto this little pile of rocks for them to eat. there's plenty of fish to go around for everyone, the fish actually get the head, which is totally weird, and the turtles quickly come to the rocks too. but instead of everyone just eating their piece and being happy, they all want it all. so the crocs are stuffing their faces with all of it, they can't even swallow, their mouths are stuck open and they are choking, and then come the turtles, traing to grab right from the crocs mouth, stomping on his face and everything. this whole time there's a little turtle, well forget it, he's just ´the Little guy and he √°lways will be because he waits patiently, and only gets the bits. and eventually you have to shut the door and watch from the window because it just gets crazy. this is the exact same situation i face every day trying to get a simple permit to land a friggin' plane in Kinshasa. i am holding the fish. the corruption, blatant forgery and lying is just too much.
this country is a complete mess, a shithole with no hope and it's so obvious why. anyone who does their job right will just eventually get stepped on by a turtle.
so i went back to the civil aviation building, the really messy one with the documents everywhere. the guy insists we meet offsite so his colleagues don't listen in.
how about the grand hotel?
how about your car?
i really don't like these meetings in cars. but we go around the corner and park under a tree. we are told who to pay, how much. this is in addition to how much we need to pay him for this info, too. it's now double our budget of 10,000 USD, for something which should originally only cost 2,000. this is getting out of control. i zone out and remember how the french expat guy told me that a congolese airline had a plane inspected in Holland (of course, why do something in Congo when you can get a free flight to Europe) and the inspectors broke the door to extend their little stay in Amsterdam. when someone complained, their passport was confiscated for 3 weeks and they couldn't leave the country. what would i do if i couldn't leave this country? i look out the window at a truck full of angry military guys. they look like a big green uniformed human pile, with yellow eyes gazing out. i come back to the meeting, ok, and we need documents in duplicate, triplicate, stamped, receipt of stamped document with stamps, etc...we drive back. there is still some wheeling and dealing to be done in their local language so i let the men discuss step out of the car.
there is a guy in front of civil aviation selling peanuts, the tasty roasted and really salty ones. he puts them in a cone of paper and hands them to me. i unroll the paper as i eat, grease spots staining the text, oh look at this, a confidential communication between the UN and the airport authority in Goma. so this is where it all ends up.
i finally approve the extortion, i don't even care anymore, just bring me a receipt, get the plane here. i send my guys to the office to pay, with thousands of $ of cash in their pockets.
they call me: the fee just went up $900
"just pay it."
the poor guys empty their wallets, my finance guy has 300€ which he just exchanged with me. they convert at a sorry exchange rate. my driver chips in the 25$ i gave him to buy me phone credit. somehow they piece it together. they bring me a stamped receipt. we have our flight permit. for two planes actually, one hasn't even been inspected, because one of the inspectors we sent to south africa didn't even show up to look at it, but they issues the permit. i don't care.  
i imagine what would happen if we did what my brother says, just erase the entire country and start over. i start thinking about who i would select to save. taxipapi, tanya my tennis partner, she really brings out the best in my game. filiberto and marie! and ok, my driver, serge. he is a nice guy. even though, yeah, ok, he uses our project vehicles as his personal taxi on weekends, but on the scale of things, where is the line between wrong and right...?