Riding into Kinshasa I was met with this swollen city’s endless traffic jam. Like riding through a constipated colon, there is no choice but to sit and wait for things to inch along… Which also happens to give the local police lots of opportunity to look at your ride for possible infractions.
My first police stop was fairly straightforward and right out of the playbook. We both played our roles perfectly and parted with a handshake and a smile (really!). The next stop didn’t quite work out that way.
I didn’t think much as the older cop walked up to me- I knew what was up, but I pretty much just cursed the time it would take while I sweated in my riding gear and lost whatever time I was making to my stop for the day. that changed as he got close enough that the stench of cigarettes and whiskey started envelop me. It’s certainly not uncommon to smell alcohol on the breath of African cops, but the smell of hard liquor almost always means trouble; the happy cops drink beer on duty, the ones with no thought beyond their own enrichment drink whiskey…
“You- come with me!”
“Why, what’s the problem?”
“You- follow me NOW!!”
The cop lead me about a block down a connecting street and then walked through the gates of a police compound. I follow him in and right into the American west, circa 1878. In the sandy compound was a u-shaped, two story building with a veranda along the first floor and a balcony along the second. Washing was hung from various wooden railings along both stories, while men in dark trousers and stained white undershirts lazed around and scratched themselves. As I rode in, some of the men took notice- calling out to the cop in the local patois while leaning over the railings, or looking out from one of the doors that lined the inside of the u. Once the cop had me park the bike exactly where he wanted it, he lead me inside- all the while refusing to answer any questions. The small room he lead me to was out of yet another stereotype- low wattage bulb hanging from a wire, battered wooden table and chairs, walls stained to shoulder height by the years of passing bodies, even the smell of mildew mixed with a hint of stale urine seemed custom made for the scene.
As we sat down across from each other, the cop finally asked me for my papers and started to go through them. As it became increasingly evident that my paperwork was in order, the cop started to become visibly annoyed, got up, and left the room with my documents in hand. Though it couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes later, hours later the door opened again and the cop sat down.
“Your bike is too heavy. It cannot be on the road.”
“What- what do you mean?”
“We do not allow bikes that heavy on the road. It is too big to be a motorbike.”
The cop went on with this line for a while, but once again, left the room with a scowl on his face and my documents in his hand.
After a few hour long minutes, the door opened again and the cop sat down with a look decision on his face.
“Here are your documents.”
“Thank you- can I go?”
“Here are your documents and I will give them to you, but you should leave something here for me when I do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I will put your documents here on the table and you will leave something for me- un petit cadeaux.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. That Canadian Embassy has asked all tourists never to give any money to the police. If we are asked, we must get all the information we can of the officer and give it to The Embassy so they can follow up on what happened.”
“But aren’t we friends?”
What?!!? What world does this guy come from? He drags me off the street to small rooms me and then, as soon as I played ‘The Embassy Card” (a traveler’s standard), he gets all pathetic?! For Fuck’s sake- get a backbone you drunken idiot!!
At this point he must have seen my abrupt change in posture and, misreading it as resolution to follow my Embassy’s directives, completely caved. He gave me my papers back and shock my hand before leading me out of the room and into the courtyard where a number of the other cops had gathered. With a huge smile on his face, he patted me on the back, helped me back the bike out and waved me out onto the road. I suppose he was trying to save face, but I also know that tourist windfalls are supposed to shared, so I imagine he either had to dig into his own pocket or face the displeasure of the other desperadoes in the compound.
Riding away from the compound I was exceedingly annoyed and decided to see if I could catch a boat across the river and into the other Congo instead of spending more time in The DRC.