Intro: You’re going where?!
When I told people I was going to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC from now on) for work, people asked why there of all places. CCDC has been working with a group at the University of Kinshasa for almost 10 years. Starting in 2012, we started doing a (roughly) yearly workshop spearheaded by my UK colleague, Juliette Pradon. Our executive director, Colin Groom, has been a couple of times while another colleague went a couple of times ago. Juliette was looking for someone to go this year, asking at a big group dinner in January when a number of us in the NJ office were over for a big meeting. Of course I said I go. It seemed like a lark (after a couple of pints and some wine) but we talked about it further the next day, and I talked about with my boss and his boss (the US operations manager). We all decided that I could go. I have wanted to go to Africa for many years, though I was thinking more along the lines of a safari in Tanzania. This would be a very different trip.
I began preparations a while back. I visited my regular doctor for an overdo checkup and then the travel doctor for my shots. Turns out that I didn’t have good record so I ended up getting six shots in one day plus four typhoid fever vaccine pills followed by yet another shot a couple of days later. For the first time, I also had to get a visa beforehand. The only issue arose is that the original invitation letter that the university wasn’t quite right and needed to be notarized by the foreign ministry. They were able to get this done remarkably quickly and the embassy in DC accepted the scan so my passport was back with the visa within a week. The visa was very unofficial looking, to the point that I scanned it and sent the image to my colleague to verify. She said it looked basic but was, in fact, a visa.
As the time got closer, we made plans for the workshop itself and worked out other details. For a hotel, we’d be staying at the university’s guest house. We worked out a schedule and what we’d be presenting. At the very end, we had a near fatal issue come up. On Monday before we were to arrive, Juliette realized she hadn’t gotten her visa yet. After much calling, etc., (DRC officials aren’t known for efficiency nor for customer service), she learned there was no record of her application at the foreign ministry in Kinshasa. Turns out, they embassy made an error and sent the wrong info. To cover themselves, they let her apply in person Thursday and get the visa late that afternoon. As they are closed Friday, it was, quite literally the last minute. I didn’t know if we were going until Thursday evening US east coast time, but we were on. (We had continued preparing assuming we’d be going so we didn’t have to squeeze in a weeks worth of work in a day.)
Sat 30-Apr: Heading out
This was it, the day I was to leave. I had packed the night before. While my flight wasn’t until 4:30pm, I had the car service pick me up at 10:30. There’s only one flight, four days per week between Paris and Kinshasa on Air France. I didn’t want to risk missing it. The flight was from JFK and there can be heavy traffic getting there, especially on Staten Island or on the Belt Parkway in Queens. Turns out, they sent a nice stretch limo. The ride there was a relatively quick 90 minutes or so. I couldn’t check my bag, I already had my boarding pass, in until one, so I grabbed some lunch and hung around. Once my bagged was checked, I made it through security in 15-20 minutes (and no TSA pre-check as it’s an international flight). JFK’s terminal one is okay. We had flown out of there in 2010 for Istanbul but I didn’t really remember it. Boarding was fine and I got lucky with an empty seat in a set of two. The flight to Paris was nothing special. I found the service so-so and think Virgin Atlantic (who I normally use for London) is much better. I dozed a bit but didn’t sleep any better than normal. I’m sure it was partly nerves.
Sun 1-May: Arriving in Kinshasa
The flight arrived in Paris on time at a bright and early 5:30 AM. After a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino and a several hour wait, it was time to board for the second flight, down to Kinshasa. Now it was getting real. The flight was fine. I watched The Big Short on the way down and dozed a bit. We arrived on time. Now I was there.
Leaving the plane, the heat and humidity proved a change from Paris in the morning. We boarded a bus for the short, probably 100 foot, ride to the terminal. Immigration was quite fast and more civil than I expected. I met who turned out to be Albert’s nephew just past the yellow fever vaccination check and then started the wait for my bag. Due to a ?probl?me technique? it took two hours for it to appear. During this time, Albert arrived. We also lost power three times. I guess it was my welcome to the DRC. After my bag finally appeared, we left the baggage hall into the throng outside the airport. Wow. We then headed back in to wait at the bar for Juliette to arrive. Albert and I had a nice conversation to the extent that his English and my (effectively no) French made one possible. I do have to say it was really the first time in my life I felt like the one everyone was looking at, being one of the handful of white people in a crowded bar. As my bags were so slow in coming, we only had to wait 30 minutes or so for Juliette though her flight arrived two hours after mine. We hopped in our taxi and headed off.
The first stretch of the ride was fine, good road and little traffic. After this 15-20 mins (which Juliette said took 2 1/2 to 3 hours on her first trip in 2012), it was off the main road onto the pothole-filled, dirt roads which form the vast majority of the Kinshasa road system. The route was lined with what might be termed shanties. It was also amazing how few lights there were. I made the comment that it felt like a trip in the countryside instead of through the middle of a city of 10 million people. After another 30 minutes or so, we reached the gate for the university campus and then had another 15 minutes to the guest house, arriving around 10:15. The guest house was about what I expected. It was quite worn but not too bad. I had a small room with a sink, a desk and chair, a wardrobe, and a mosquito net draped bed.
The bathrooms weren’t so bad either. We effectively each had our own as there were two and we were the only guests. After a dinner of soup and bread, during which we briefly lost power, it was time to crash. I fell asleep quickly as I hadn’t had much sleep for several nights. All in all, it was an anxious, long trip, but I was there.
Mon 2-May: First day in Kinshasa
I woke up with the alarm at 7:00 after a pretty good night’s sleep for my first day in Africa. After a breakfast omelet and bad instant coffee (Nescafe), I spent some time taking some photos around the guest house. Yav came by at 9:30 to drive us down to the main campus for the start of our workshop. The 1.4 mile trip (measured via Google Maps later in the week) took a good 15-20 minutes because the road was so bad. Campus is interesting. Quite run down. We headed over to Yav’s office to talk about the schedule for the week. It was surprising to me that the office doors had outer doors of steel rebar, akin to prison cell doors, and heavy duty padlocks. Juliette said this was to protect them (and maybe the professors) should the students get the mind to riot. (Apparently this happens every once in a while. A couple of years back they torched the rector’s house and car.)
After squaring away the week, we headed back to another building and set up for Juliette’s intro lecture to 30-40 students. Luckily we were able to get a decent projector, though Juliette did have to use the demo laptop as she didn’t have an HDMI to VGA adapter. (The projector had HDMI but there was no cable.) Juliette did a great job over the couple of hour talk. By the end, it was quite warm. There seemed to be some good, thoughtful questions. (I found this to be the case throughout the week.) As I didn’t make sense for Yav to drive us to the guest house, return to campus, and then repeat at the end of lunch, Juliette drove us back. We did this routine the rest of the week and it worked well.
Lunch was fish, stewed(?) manioc leaves, and rice. The leaves were very good though a bit oily. It was then back to the main campus for the intro to GOLD session. It turns out as we were using computers for the rest of the sessions, we got to use the air conditioned computer lab. Albert had made sure all the machines were ready to go. The afternoon started with an intro lecture, basically the same I had given at U-Mass Dartmouth and in California, not surprising given mine originally came from Juliette. The hands on bit proved interesting as I tried to help in French. The students spoke basic English so I probably should have just gone with that. We headed back to the guest house around 6 for a dinner of lunch leftovers then general work and posting some photos (Slack for work and Facebook for family & friends). Later in the evening, a new guest, Olivier, a surgeon from Belgium, arrived. We both headed to bed fairly early. My first full day in Africa was quite good.
Up at 7:00 again. Still no hot water. Another omelet for breakfast, though we also had Nutella this morning. We ate with Olivier which was nice. He’s been coming every three months for several years to help the university hospital maintain medical standards and to bring equipment. Talking with him throughout the week was interesting. A few days later, Juliette commented that he seemed a bit bitter but she said might be too if she came every three months for years. While we were supposed to be picked up around 9:00, it ended up being more like 10:30. We later learned this was due to a miscommunication with one of the student groups who had missed the intro to GOLD so, obviously, wasn’t prepared for the advanced GOLD session. After another good session, it was back to the guest house for lunch ? chicken if I’m remembering correctly ? and then back to the campus.
The afternoon consisted of brief presentations by Albert and Didi on their work and discussions about research and general stuff. Somehow we filled the afternoon. We had dinner, soup I think, with Olivier. He said something about turning on the hot water so we’re each going to try in the morning. We did a Python install on one of their laptops with the network turned off to ensure it would work. The only thing I missed was a pip package. I downloaded this and put it on the keys. Turns out, this didn’t matter so much as it was for the notebooks which don’t work with IE 8 which the machines all have. I ended up staying up fairly late getting my presentation squared away, coming up with a few exercises for Python and the CSD Python API and reworking a couple of the notebooks.
Wed 4-May: My workshop day
It’s now ?my day?. Up at 7:00, another omelet, and a pick up right at 9:00. Our hot water experiment didn’t work out, but we only turned them on for a few minutes. Tonight I’m going to try doing it before bed. The AM session was an intro to Python with a group of 10-12 informatics students. I think it went well. They asked some good questions. Some students picked things up quickly while others struggled a bit. I think that’s typical. (Interestingly, it seems they learn C#.) Lunch was Beef and mushroom stew (again, if I’m remembering correctly) and potatoes. Today was the first time we had bananas and they were quite good, not a massive banana flavor but more than what we get and some nice spice undertones.
The PM CSD Python API session was so-so. I think the intro stuff was good but I should have had simpler examples. I ended up doing a really basic one to effectively replicate some of Didi’s work which was perfect. I did show the conformation generation even though that script is complex as Yav had asked for it explicitly. I didn’t end up getting to a point of having them do some exercises. Back at the guest house, dinner was soup. I then helped Juliette with her stuff for Thursday as she hadn’t had a chance to prep much yet as well as posted another batch of photos. I did remember to turn on the hot water so here’s hoping for the best.
Thu 5-May: Final day of the workshop
The last day of the workshop. Up again at 7:00. No hot water, in fact no water at all. As I was heading to the main room after getting dressed, I heard gurgling from the other bathroom. Checking things again, the water was now on. (Juliette thinks they might have to turn on the pumps.) Even better, when I checked, there was hot water. Now there wasn’t any more water than before but it was still wonderful. I wanted to let it run down my face but had to avoid that in case it got in my mouth. We got picked up around 9:15. Juliette’s morning session on ligand-based approaches went very well. The students had reasonably good luck doing a conformation generation and a ligand overlay.
As we got back for lunch, there was a guy selling some stuff in the parking lot. I bought a couple of things, probably paying way more than I should have. After a lunch of fish, greens, and rice, we headed back for the final session of the workshop. Juliette presented the intro to ligand-based design and then the field-based virtual screening iPython notebook to the informatics students. (We both decided on this despite the fact the functionality is RP only until November.) At the end, Yav asked me to talk a bit about university in the US. I did get a question about what ?social? benefits I got for getting a PhD. I didn’t quite get the question but Juliette handled it perfectly. (The gist was what could I get with a PhD that I couldn’t without. Juliette explained that it is needed to really do research and for many jobs in science.) Overall, I think the week went very well. Later, Juliette said that Yav was very pleased.
After a dinner of pork chops with Olivier and his friend, I talked with Suzanne a bit via Hangouts before doing my packing and settling my bill ($325 for the week including 5 beers). It’s hard to believe the week was over.
Fri 6-May: Last day in Africa
My last day in Africa. After another hot shower, though I had forgotten to turn on the hot water at bed and turned it on on the middle of the night, I finished up my last bit of packing. Our ?right at 9:00? pick up turned out to be 9:30. We headed down to the main campus and waited for Didi and Freddy, one of Yav’s former students. (Freddy was the first choice for the first PhD student but could not afford to go to school and instead had to take a job.) As Yav doesn’t like to drive in the city and Freddy had a bigger car, we bundled into his Toyota FJ3, Yav, Didi, and I in the back, and headed out. Albert was going to meet us later.
It was quite something seeing Kinshasa proper in the daylight for the first time. The poverty is amazing, the traffic is intense, and the roads are horrendous. Eventually, we made our way down close to the river as Yav wanted me to see the Congo. A good spot is the Cit? du Fleuve. At the entrance gate, the guard didn’t want to let us in, staring us down for a good 15 minutes. Eventually, Freddy got out and made a call, his friend lives there, and they decided to let us in. For quite some time, it was very tense. The area is very strange, for lack of a better word. We drove through some of the poorest bits I saw during my trip, and then it’s a suburb right out of Europe with paved roads, new buildings, clean streets, and even swimming pools.
Seeing the river was something I very much wanted to do. Here, there were marshes with fish smoking huts and people using dugout canoes. You could make out the far bank in the distance. It was odd to still see the poverty just across the small inlet with the shanties and rusting ships on the shore. After a brief visit, we headed downtown to check in for my flight. Downtown was very different from what I had seen before with tall(-ish) buildings, wide streets, and even a couple of actual supermarkets. Turns out that the Air France checkin desk at the hotel had closed at 11:30 while we were there at 11:50 so I’d have to check in at the airport. The AF gentleman suggested getting to the airport between 1:00 and 1:30.
We left the hotel and drove a bit down the street to lunch at Cafe Eros. Albert met us here. This was a quite good Congolese buffet. I got to try a number of foods including manioc and pili pili. The meal wasn’t cheap, but not hugely expensive by US standards at $170 for six of us.
It was now getting toward 2:00 so I was getting worried. We now headed out to the airport. Along the way, we stopped right by the American embassy to see a different view of the river. Here, it was much narrower and you could just make out the start of Livingstone Falls. Back in car, we continued on. It was getting very warm now. The external thermometer in the car hit 36?C (97?F) and the AC only sort of worked.
Eventually we arrived at the airport. I was quite anxious by now as it was around 3:00. After some confusion, Juliette and I headed to buy our Go Passes (exit visas). The ?gentleman? asked for an extra ?fee?. Juliette got 1000 Fc from Yav but was quite peeved about it. We then entered the check-in area. They wouldn’t let Yav, Didi, or Freddy in. Juliette convinced them to let her in as my translator. I had no problem checking in to AF to get my (preprinted) boarding pass and then another desk to check my bag. (The agent originally tagged my bag as cabin baggage. When we corrected her, she commented that it was very small.) At this point, I went though onto passport control and security while Juliette went back out to hang out with Yav and the others. Passport and security was fine. I ended up getting through to the waiting area right around 3:20. I certainly was over anxious. While there was a cafe on the other side, there wasn’t anything else. (Duty free was ?coming soon? – I can just imagine when it will be there.) After waiting a while, Juliette appeared, so we got to chat some more. Boarding was okay. They did do a hand baggage check before boarding the bus. A couple of more checks and I was on the plane. I sort of felt like I was ?back in the real world?. Of course, we still had a stop in Angola. After perhaps the bumpiest take off I’ve had and an hour or so flight, we touched down in Luanda. It turns out, we didn’t get off the plane. I was lucky to have an exit row seat so had plenty of space to stand. Back in the air, a bit late but not too bad, it was time for the eight hour overnight flight to Paris. I watched Star Wars and dozed a bit.
Sat 7-May: Flying back home
Arrival in Paris was fine and we were roughly on time. I had considered going into town as I had a seven hour layover but decided against it in the end. The passport control line was quite long and I was pretty beat. I grabbed a pain au chocolate and a hot chocolate for breakfast and walked a bit. I ended up dozing for an hour or so before hitting all the shops to figure out what to bring back. I did manage to kill a bunch more time before heading back to shops to actually buy what I had decided on a bit before boarding my final flight.
Boarding was a bit confusing. I was happy to have a Comfort+ seat as I got to board as just about one of the first people on. The flight back was fine. I got lucky once again and had an empty seat, in a set of two, next to me. Being Comfort+, I felt I had so much room. (Overall, the plane was pretty empty with several empty sets of two or three including the one right behind me.) During the flight, I watched Concussion and Lincoln, both very good and I can’t believe I hadn’t seen the latter, and dozed a bit. It’s possible the beer and two generous glasses of wine helped with the latter. We arrived in Newark on time, landing right at 4:00. While we did have to get towed to the gate, we disembarked quite quickly. I ended up being the first person at the baggage claim and then only waiting 10 or so minutes for my bag. All told, I made it from the end of the jetway to Dunkin Donuts by the door to the curb in 35 minutes including getting a checked bag and going through ag inspection. Not too bad. I waited only a few minutes for Suzanne and was finally home around 5:00. I managed to stay up until 7:30 or so but then had to crash, hard and slept for 10+ hours.
Summary: Truly an experience
When Juliette first asked about going to Kinshasa at dinner in January, it really felt like something of a lark. Eventually, it all worked out that I was really going to be going. In the end, I was so very glad I decided to go and that it worked out. The workshop itself was great and the experience of the trip was incredible, truly something of a lifetime. Throughout the week, Juliette did a tremendous amount of work and made my trip productive and worthwhile. The university itself felt very isolated from the rest of the city. It really was incredible what Yav, Didi, Albert, and the other students have to make do with in terms of facilities and resources. You really don’t realize how dependent you’ve become on the Internet and even a well stocked library to do research and study. If asked to go again, I would do so in a second, assuming the country doesn’t become less stable. If I could have changed a couple of things, it would have been for me to learn some French and to be able to see something of the countryside. Maybe next time.