KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo – We flew into the other Congo, capital Brazzaville, at dawn, and then took a slow boat across the Congo River to Kinshasa. It had been five or six years since I had been to Kinshasa. I remember the trip well. On the way in, I walked into a mob scene at the airport (like everyone else) and paid a $50 fee to a service that got me out of there in one piece; on the way out, I walked into the airport with a leg pouch containing $1400, and by the time I was on my flight the leg pouch was no longer on my leg, the money gone.
So I liked arriving by boat.
There was no crowd to greet us -- just dignitaries and their security details -- and we slipped into waiting cars and raced through the city with a police escort to the Hotel du Fleure. The building rose 22 stories on a high point above the Congo. My room was on the 19th floor, and I looked down on the city from the vantage point of a hawk.
I eyed a running route under the canopy that hugged the river, laced up my shoes, and I was off. I felt almost wobbly – I had slept the last two nights on planes (Washington-Geneva and then Geneva-Paris-Brazzaville). But I figured I should follow my own advice about running in the morning after a long flight to fight jet lag, or pay the price (of jet lag or scorn from my friends).
After a few minutes on a main road, I took a left, then a right, and I settled on an easy pace down a near-empty road of privilege. Cut grass lined the road. High walls obscured properties. Every 50 yards a man or a woman, wearing blue uniforms, swept the road with a palm frond. Tiny leaves went skittering under my feet. I was running on clean asphalt in a city with few functioning sewers.
I passed the British Embassy, then the German, and soon came upon a roadblock. I waved to a soldier, who stood up and greeted me with a rifle. “Go back,” he said. “No passing.”
I hung a left and as I crested a hill, the Congo spread out before me. It was muddy brown, seemingly a mile wide. Parts of the river are 700 feet deep, and there are more than 700 species of fishes in it, and scientists say there surely are many, many more.
Even from the road, the river, which passes through the Congo rainforest, seemed extraordinarily powerful and dangerous. It is Africa’s second longest river (the Nile is first) and is the largest by volume (which has helped spur dreams and plans to build a hydroelectric dame called Inga III that could power most of sub-Saharan Africa.) I am not a good swimmer and I started imagining preposterous scenarios like falling off a boat in the middle of the Congo and trying to swim to one side. I was sure the current would sweep me away and I would be gone forever.
I kept to the middle of the road. Ahead, I heard a commotion and saw dozens and dozens of schoolchildren dressed in identical blue and white uniforms. They were crossing the road, and as I came closer, several shouted out at me. I ran into their midst, skirting them slowly, and some giggled and took a few steps as if to follow me. But the gaze of a stern headmaster spoiled those plans, and soon I had the road to myself again.
I ran for a few miles more and was about to turn toward the hotel when a tiny blue bird darted in front of me. I stopped and looked into the grass. There it was – an indigo bird. I watched it hop and flit around the grass, and then it settled next to three others. I stood and watched them, transfixed at their beauty.
The indigo birds flew off, and I started off again. I didn’t know when I would see such birds or the Congo River again, but I was feeling more euphoric than sad. I had stolen some wonderful moments by the river, some balm perhaps to temper the memories of my last trip here.