Thursday February 22, 2018: Congo’s Second City
I woke up in Pointe Noire extremely well rested. Even though it was 90 degrees outside and my room had neither air conditioning nor fan, I was so tired from the bus ride yesterday that I slept for 10 hours.
Pointe-Noire is Congo’s second largest city with 1 million residents. It is located on the Atlantic coast. As the center of Congo’s large oil industry, Pointe-Noire is also the economic center of the country. As a result, this city has a large population of foreigners.
I started my stay in Pointe-Noire like I do in nearly every city I visit: a long stroll. I set my sights on the grand market just a mile north of my hotel. The walk started in the center of town- dubbed by Lonely Planet as “The European City” because all the foreigners live here. Probably 20% of everyone walking around was not African (this mostly consisted of Lebanese, Chinese, and French). Many of the tall buildings that lined the main boulevard were quite nice.
The streets themselves were actually in decent condition. There were some people walking around, but there were way more cars. 70% of the cars were blue-painted taxis and the other 30% were SUV’s owned by the petroleum class. I have never seen more SUV’s in any place than here in Pointe Noire.
Walking north, I passed a giant traffic circle. At that point, I had entered “The African City. The scenery changed. All of a sudden, it felt just like Brazzaville with lots of people walking, street vendors, and less-nice buildings. The streets here were in terrible condition with gigantic potholes everywhere slowing down traffic to a crawl. Unfortunately, the grand market itself was under construction. However, the merchants moved their shops to the sidewalks on the nearby blocks which made walking the sidewalks a complicated endeavor.
I bought an African patterned shirt using my calculator negotiating skills. We actually didn’t speak a single word to each other. I gestures to my shirt then shrugged. The merchant led me to the back of the store to the shirt section and I tried a few on. Once I liked one, I patted my palm then shrugged then took out my calculator. He typed in 12,000 francs. I countered with 5,000 (just under $10) and he accepted. Afterwards, I noticed that other clothing items had listed prices. Dresses of similar fabric were going for 28,000 francs. So maybe I did alright this time. We smiled at each other, he gave me a thumbs-up and I walked away.
Before heading back to my hotel, I stopped at an ice cream shop in the city center. It was the only place within walking distance of my hotel that had working WiFi. I used the connection to contact my guide for tomorrow’s adventure.
I then walked back to my hotel and ran into a group of Swedish tourists. Many of them lived in my hotel as children- it is a half Christian school/half hotel that originally was run by a Swedish church. Today, the school/hotel is run by an Evangelical church. The Swedes invited me for coffee and I accepted.
Then I met up with my guide for tomorrow’s village excursion next to my hotel at a nearby shawarma shop. We discussed strategy and planning. Then I took a taxi to a famous Congolese seafood restaurant where I ran into the Swedes again. I sat at their table and jokingly promised to stop stalking them.
It was nearly 2pm so I then walked all the way to the beach stopping briefly at the ice cream shop to get WiFi to contact a girl I met on the plane who wanted to practice her English (we were supposed to meet at 11am, but Africa Time). We agreed to meet at the historic train station.
Allegra showed up at the station around 3pm. I was hoping we would walk to the beach, but she was wearing heels and was confused why I would want to walk so we took a taxi instead. The beach was incredibly beautiful but there were very few people around, save for some kids playing soccer and a few armed police officers. Allegra explained that the current was strong so swimming wasn’t allowed. The soldiers were stationed there to ensure that nobody swam. We then walked past the president’s beach house before getting a drink (water in my case because I was getting dehydrated) at a Chinese restaurant.
Allegra was studying in Cape Town and was one of the few Congolese who knew any English (her English was pretty good for someone with only 1 year of experience). She explained that because all the bordering countries-Gabon, DRC, CAR, Cameroon- speak French, there is no need for English in Congo. If people speak a second language (which most people do), it would be one of the 62 local languages spoken by different ethnic groups. Some people in rural areas can only speak the local languages but everyone can at least understand French.
It was now about 5pm and Allegra had to head home. She invited me to her house where she and her boyfriend were going to make dinner. She estimated that it would take until about 7pm to make dinner at which point she would message me.
With nothing to do, I headed back to the ice cream shop, bought some ice cream and hung out for an hour. I then noticed that the sunset was absolutely beautiful so I walked back down to the beach to check it out. It was amazing.
It was now 7:15 so I walked back to the ice cream shop to message Allegra. Not wanting to go inside again, I sat down on the curb outside- but still used their WiFi. A local security guard/peddler thought I was there to pickpocket people and called the entire staff of the ice cream shop over. I then explained that I was just waiting for my friend to contact me. They didn’t really buy it, so to avoid creating more of a scene, I walked in and bought more ice cream. At 8pm I got a message that Allegra still wasn’t done making dinner (Africa time) and that I should just get dinner on my own. Rather than explain that I got cancelled on, I tried to save face by asking the owner of the ice cream shop for directions to a nearby restaurant where I was going to meet her for a “date”. For some reason he instead took me to a casino and said to be very careful of pickpockets in this town. He left me outside the casino. It must have been a miscommunication. There was no chance that I could go back to the ice cream shop anymore after that incident without buying a lot of ice cream. Since I was leaving the next morning, my WiFi connection was now over in Pointe Noire and hopefully I would be able to connect with my guide the to head out the next morning without WhatsApp.
I decided to get dinner at the shawarma shop from earlier in the day because the owner was so nice. I ordered a shawarma and the owner –a Lebanese man with sleeve tattoos and a man bun – ended up sitting down with me as I was the only one in the place. He recently moved here from Lebanon after breaking off an engagement. We talked about my day and the differences between Congo and Lebanon. Eventually, the conversation quickly switched to girls.
The shawarma shop owner believes the moral values in Pointe Noire are incredibly toxic. He believes the locals only care about money, sex, and status. He highly suggested I go out to a nightclub because the women in Congo are apparently the easiest in the world. For a mere 10,000 francs ($18) anybody in any bar can be yours, he said. Even if the woman is not a prostitute, the guy is still expected to pay for sex. Should the man father a child with the woman, he is not responsible for raising the child- due to the incredibly high rate of men leaving the mothers. Rather the mother and her brothers are expected to raise the child. He said that the cost of sleeping with a rich guy for a night is equivalent to the price of 10% of the price of a house on the outskirts of town! He claimed that every day at the shawarma shop, girls- especially those from the nearby Christian school where I am staying at- ask for his number in the hopes that they can make some money off him. He said he one day hopes to leave Congo and ideally live in Eastern Europe.
While the cost of living can be very low in Congo, the cost of creature comforts or anything considered luxurious is very high. This often is the case in places with large wealth disparities. In Pointe Noire, there is a wealth disparity between those who work in oil or are foreign and the locals who do not work in oil. As crazy as it sounds- the price of a single night in a low quality air conditioned hotel room in the city center of Pointe Noire is the same price as a house in the outskirts.
We chatted for about 2 hours before I headed to bed around 9. There was no chance of me going out to the nightclub as it breaks 2 of my 3 main rules for solo travel: no staying out late and no sex. I really didn’t know what to think about that entire conversation except that if everything he said were true, I am glad I do not live here.
The next morning I slept in. I had to walk past the ice cream shop one last time on my way to the grocery store. There, the manager grinned at me and said “bonjour” in a very loud and obnoxious voice. I find it funny that this random ice cream shop in Congo doesn’t care too much for me.
I was more than ready to leave Pointe-Noire. Not only did the ice cream shop not like me, but I very quickly ran out of things to do. I also did not like the toxic culture and the huge wealth disparity here. The people I met were all very nice, but I would be more than happy to never come back here.