Posts Tagged ‘Frankfurt’

Congo, round two!

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Well, I’m off again. Leaving tonight for the DRC by way of Brussels and Kigali. I sincerely hope that a) the snowy weather in NYC right now doesn’t screw up the flights tonight. Called BA this morning and was told it was going on time for now. Let’s hope… and b) that there are no more adventures involving Brussels and Frankfurt and Adis Ababa this time!

I should get to Bukavu on Sunday, early afternoon, and will be geared up for three weeks of good reporting and story-hunting. I’ve got a lot to do, but much more time on this second trip, so I’m hoping it won’t be such a mad dash. And maybe, I’ll have a little more time to take in some of this fascinating place and see it a bit more too.

I’ll add posts here as the stories accumulate. So, more anon!

This really happened…

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
Passing the time on the long, long journey to Bukavu...

Passing the time on the long, long journey to Bukavu...

Here’s one good way to get to know someone well: travel internationally together for nearly 62 hours with little sleep, two airplane cancellations, one three-and-a-half hour mad dash across European borders in a rental car and a couple of Belgian beers along the way. So far, it’s working for me.

That’s how Dr. Scott Eggener, Dr. Gregory Bales and I spent the first three days of our journey from Brussels to Frankfurt to Brussels again, then to Bujumbura (Burundi) through Rwanda and onto our final destination, Bukavu in the eastern Congo. And I’m thinking that among the admittedly many silver linings I can find in this tale of travel woe, is that I’ve met two men, about whom I’ll be writing, who are exceedingly easy to get along with in stressful situations and incredibly determined to do some good in the world. And that’s just about as good a set-up for any piece as I could hope.

So it all started easily enough for me at JFK on Thursday, Oct. 15. My plane to Brussels left on time and I got to sit next to an amiable Italian lady, which for anyone who knows me, knows was an extra bonus. I breezed through customs in Brussels and then slowly started making my way to my next gate for the three-hour wait until I would fly to Burundi. On this second leg of my journey I’d be joining Scott and Greg, physicians from the Univ of Chicago whose medical work in Bukavu is the subject of one of my pieces there.

But when I finally found a departure monitor that listed my flight, I saw to my dismay the words “annullé” flash upon the screen. Not wanting to believe what I knew to be true – that annullé means cancelled – I stood staring until my translation was confirmed with the dreaded English version that soon followed the French. So I marched over to the Brussels Airlines information counter and was re-routed, with Scott and Greg, to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) via Frankfurt. From there, we would catch another plane to Bujumbura and hopefully only be set back by about eight hours.

With the power of the Internet and the Brussels airport wireless, I found the docs in the departure lounge and we proceeded to spend a very tired day in Brussels. We first ambled through the Magritte Museum, which was lovely, if a bit overcrowded. We then ate a fine Belgian lunch and wandered over to an old church that was, as we discovered, built in the 11th century (I won the bet for guessing it’s age most closely, though I was off by about four centuries – so, yes, maybe we’re not history buffs…).

Feeling too exhausted to do much else, we decided to try and see a movie and maybe catch a nap in the process. We chose something called “Hump Day,” mainly because the theater was there (i.e. we walked past it) and the film was in English. It turned out to be quite easily the worst film we had ever seen. Agonizingly boring and slow-moving, the film followed two straight male buddies who wanted to try and make a gay porn film, sort of as a dare, for a radical film festival (please don’t make me try to explain more). I think the only reason we didn’t walk out is that the seats were relatively comfortable, the theater was dark, and we all slept some.

After browsing in a small book shop nearby and picking up a copy of Tin Tin in the Congo, appropriately enough, we found a local pub and shared a couple of beers. Turns out, Greg is a master fly-swatter (faster maybe even than Obama!!) and Scott a wizard at picking out unfortunate baby names (no, not for his own children).

Soon enough we were headed back to the airport where we were those people at the check-in counter who take FOREVER and you simply can’t understand why. Now on Ethiopian Air, they didn’t want to allow Scott’s third checked bag (medical equipment) because he had paid American Airlines for it but not them. After much haggling on the phone, an email confirming that payment would arrive eventually seemed to suffice. Thus, our bags successfully checked, we headed to our next flight with only a few minutes to spare.

The plane was not too crowded and we took off promptly for Frankfurt. When we landed, we sat on the tarmac for an hour. No word about why from the cockpit. Then it was two hours and, only when pressed, did the flight attendants tell us we had a flat tire. “But don’t worry,” they assured me, “you’ll get your next flight.” Then three hours and, “I don’t think we’re leaving Frankfurt tonight.” Then they served us dinner – they insisted. Then by hour four, after much fretting and wondering how we’d ever make it to the Congo, we were finally allowed off the plane.

We departed with a plan: get our bags (hurdle # 1), rent a car at 2:30 in the morning (hurdle #2), drive back to Brussels and don’t get lost (hurdle #3), catch our original cancelled flight to Bujumbura at 10:40 am, which, of course, would have seats for us (hurdle #4) and don’t get charged again for the flight (hurdle #5).

Well kids? Our bags came off at carousel B17 as we were told. The car rental company in terminal A was open. We did find our way out of the garage and on to Brussels in good time and with no major gaffes. Brussels Airlines got us on the 10:40 flight with no extra charge and, the bonus, the flight was practically empty. Thus we spent the next eight hours to Burundi each with our own row of five empty seats – snoring loudly I am sure.

Once in Burundi Alice, my fixer, met us at the airport as planned (despite all the changes in said plans) and though our hotel had no record of our reservation, rooms were available. We slept well and woke to a relatively easy drive across two borders (Rwanda and Congo) and around verdant, rolling hills framed by the misty, imposing mountains beyond.

In Bukavu we settled into our guest house and after some lunch, story planning, phone-calling and interview arranging with my translator extraordinaire, Roger, I went back to sleep. For three hours. I napped like a baby — out cold and in blissful content that we had actually managed to get here. There were several moments when I hadn’t been so sure…