Upon arrival in Kinshasa, DR Congo, the first stop for visitors (unless coming across the river) is N’djili_Airport. This is definitely not the most pleasant of sites. It’s rundown. It’s smelly. It’s crowded and it is overall a complete zoo.

Previous to visiting Congo, I read up a great deal on the country and this airport was one of my biggest fears. The endless delays in getting through it, the possibility of losing a great deal from your luggage when going through “customs”, and then trying to get away from the airport and in to the center of Kinshasa were all daunting problems not allowing me to sleep on the seven hour leg of the flight from Paris to Kinshasa.

Once we got there, my fears weren’t fully lived up to. They have apparently cleaned up the airport a great deal in recent years and the need to have a “control” to usher you through the airport has lessened. It still sucks though and there are what I consider to be the five levels of purgatory before you are actually released upon Kinshasa.

1. Passport Inspection This is pretty minor and is just checking to see if you have a visa. The line is lengthy and stretches out on to the tarmac as naturally there are no true landing gates for the planes. I’m not really sure what would happen if you didn’t have a visa at this point, I assume either a little “push” to the guards or getting right back on the plane.

2. Passport Control A much longer process. You stand in lines with everyone else as you weed your way through a couple of booths checking each person’s allowance to be in the country. This was apparently much faster in the past, but has been slowed down in the last month as the Congolese staff are learning to use some new computers that the EU got them. Once they get used to it, it will most likely speed up–a little. One thing to note here is that no matter how seemingly stupid of a request the police might ask of you, go along with it. They have nothing else to do other than controlling that line. Just be patient and listen to them and respect them. This is a useful skill to learn as you’ll be dealing with police in Kinshasa proper.

3. Health Control A minor step to make sure you have your yellow fever vaccination and your immunization card, which if your traveling here, you should most definitely have had. I believe they’ll make you get one there if (and pay for it) you don’t have it, but this is only if you’re not Congolese. In theory, they’re “immaculately immunized” and don’t need to prove it.

4. Luggage… Sweet Jesus almighty. This is the worst part. You stand along the luggage conveyor for something like two hours or more waiting for your baggage to come out. This may seem like just a boring wait, except that there is no air conditioning in the space and there are all these random guys who want to “help” you grab your bags for a tip. It’s sweaty and completely not fun, but is part of this journey. The biggest issue here is if your bag was lost, like one of ours was during the tight transfer in Paris. You don’t find out that the bag is gone until the very end of all of this and then once you know, you have to register it as lost and then wait until the next flight, of which there are only three a week.

5. Clearance and Onward Once you have your luggage, ignore every single person outside the airport. They will forcefully try to grab your bags to again “help” you carry them for a tip. Just cling on to them and keep going for either your ride, the taxis, or if you’re lucky enough, the UN shuttle to the center. It should be noted that the taxis will be $50+ to get in to the center. Why? Because it’s an hour ride with tons of traffic.

But that’s it. Just a few simple steps. Just a few minor hours and you’ll soon be in Kinshasa, home to 10 million people and a whole lot more craziness that I’ll get in to again when I can get at the internet, which is scarce commodity in these parts.

Update: This article tends to get a lot of hits around the middle and the end of the year as that’s when people get UN contracts, are terrified by what might await them and find this article. Let me emphasize that this was published in 2008 and that a number of things have changed at the airport. Sadly, Congo is pretty much the same despite the untold hundreds of millions being blown on MONUSCO which you’re probably heading to right now as it serves as an entry point for the inexperienced to try and and get in to UN work…