When Claire Takahashi stepped off the plane at Ndjili Airport outside Kinshasa, hustlers studied her from the observation deck. They wondered: what kind of woman is this? Not European. Chinese? But Chinese always traveled in groups. This woman was alone. Maybe American? Short. Slight. She walked with an American woman’s long confident strides, her head held high even though she was tired from the long flight. She moved with that American way of determinedly placing her feet on the tarmac. Dark blue pantsuit, the hustlers noted, jacket open, white silk blouse beneath, gold jewelry, black hair pulled in a ponytail. Her eyes darted about.
Pickpockets noted that she carried a large satchel purse, the straps over her right shoulder, right arm pressing it tight against her body. Her hands, held together, gripped a small padded suitcase. The men on the observation deck inspected it. Obviously a laptop computer. That would be something to snatch. Simple to do. Man #1 collides with her; Man #2 grabs the computer.
Claire entered the terminal, her carriage erect, mouth set firmly, shoulders back. She saw a group of Chinese men, moving as a herd. Some of them eyeballed her. She ignored them. Her eyes kept moving. She knew that thieves and hustlers waited to prey on new arrivals as they emerged from customs inspection. She scanned the terminal, ready to counter them.
The hustlers who watched her cross the tarmac raced to accost her as she entered the noise and confusion of the preying ground.
The person who actually approached her was the embassy greeter. Under the watchful eyes of the giant portrait of Kabila fils, Congo’s president and successor to the assassinated Kabila pere, the greeter held a sign that read: C. Takahashi. Claire smiled with relief. Through a hubbub of contending bodies she strode toward the greeter.
“Ms Takahashi?” inquired the small man in the safari suit. Lebanese from the looks of him, he exuded a presence larger than himself. “I’m from the embassy,” he said. “Follow me.” The man took Claire’s wrist and pulled her through the mass of bodies screaming at her: “Taxi, Madame? Hotel? Taxi?”
Claire was jostled. She felt a hand on her laptop. Whirling around, she almost lost her balance. She saw two tall, well-muscled men behind her. One of them reached for her, took her upper arms. She almost screamed. He righted her, kept her from falling. She realized the two men were escorts. The intruding hand released her laptop and suddenly she was outside.
The night air was cooler. It smelled of vehicle exhaust fumes. Hugging her laptop, Claire followed the greeter to a Ford Explorer. She climbed inside, feeling she might cry, but she never cried. She realized the escorts were putting her luggage into the rear of the SUV. How had they gotten the luggage? She did not know. Instead of crying, she laughed. The greeter tipped the escorts. They vanished. Claire took control of herself. The SUV began to move.
The greeter sped Claire into the city. A cloud-layer of what seemed hot, wet cotton hung so close to the earth that she felt it might engulf them. Sprawling shantytowns of cast-off metal and palm-frond shacks stood beside the highway, illuminated by occasional naked light bulbs. Men in shorts, tee shirts and sandals laughed together. The sharp smell of vegetable decay and cookfires lingered in the air. Claire wondered if she would be safe in this first posting of her Foreign Service career.
As she rode, she thought of what her father, an engineering professor, had told her. Part One: “You will be encountering people and places very different from what you have known before.” She nodded, as if to him. If we were with her, he would say, “Be calm.”
Part Two was something her father had learned when he was first lecturing. He was still working on his dissertation then and teaching was a distraction. Some students had complained about him and a mentor confided to him, “The teaching will go better if you love the students.” Love them? How? But he had taken the advice to heart. The diss was delayed, but eventually completed and he came to enjoy the students. And so Part Two: “You will find the new post more to your liking if you love the people you find there.”
But it was a little late at night and too many miles flown this day to give any thought to loving.
The greeter deposited her at the Leon Hotel. He wheeled her suitcase into the lobby, pointed to the reception, and left her. She thanked him, reached for her suitcase, as if it were an anchor, and felt herself in a very foreign place. But it was just the lobby of an international hotel. She had traveled. Why should it seem foreign?
The lobby was decorated with ersatz Bakuba masks. Kinshasa rock’n’roll pulsated out of the adjacent hotel bar. Silk-suited men wearing gold rings and sunglasses stood outside the bar conducting business on cell phones. High-breasted, amply bottomed young women stood beside them. Claire thought: Working girls. Sunglasses at midnight. Welcome to a place very different from what you have known before.
She heard a group of men leave the bar. They giggled together with strangely high-pitched voices and spoke rapidly with squeaky clickings quite unfamiliar to Claire’s ear. She glanced at them: Chinese. Clean-shaven businessmen in cheap suits. Apparently all of them patronized the same barber, the same tailor. They left the hotel without looking at the silk-suited men or their women.
As Claire filled out the registration form, her peripheral vision caught a silk suit counseling a young minion wearing a tight leather dress that revealed her thighs. Her push-up bra displayed abundant cleavage. She walked toward Claire, passed her. She offered her services to another traveler signing in at the counter. The business man appraised the courtesan.
Claire stopped filling out her form. She wondered: Does business like this really go on here, in the lobby of a four-point-eight-star hotel? The traveler declined the courtesan’s offer. He moved away.
The courtesan now looked at Claire, as an object of wonder. Claire glanced at the girl: no older than late teens, voluminous headcloth, well-modeled face, good cheekbones, well-turned lips. She beheld Claire. Her innocence of expression seemed to say, “I have never seen anyone so cosmopolitan as you.” But she would not have known the word “cosmopolitan”?
Claire had been warned in the post report, “Africans often stare. They mean no harm. Don’t be self-conscious.” She turned back and filled out the registration form. As she turned to her suitcase, she saw the young girl still staring. Part Two, she thought. She forced herself to smile and not to feel self-conscious.
Claire followed the bellhop into the elevator. A young white woman entered beside her. She had blonded hair, a starveling’s figure, and moved in a dress so tight she could hardly walk. She remarked in French, “You are Chinese?”
“American. Of Japanese background.”
The woman nodded. Claire leaned tiredly against the back of the elevator and observed her companion. The woman had a Gallic face like that of a fox−−pinched mouth, pointed nose and chin−−spoke working-class French out of a mouth full of bad teeth, and had cash registers in her eyes.
“You and Sidanie studied each other,” the woman remarked.
“Sidanie?” Claire asked.
“Her tribe is the BaSida,” the woman explained. “SIDA. What Americans call AIDS.”
“Oh. Does that mean–? She’s so young.”
“She’ll be lucky to reach twenty-five.”
“I hope she’s careful,” Claire said. “And that you are.” She was surprised to hear these last words come out of her mouth.
“I am very careful,” the woman said. “I am not going to die in this place.”
The woman sighed. “I am on my way to do a Chinese.” She made a face. The cash register eyes sparkled merrily. “Those Chinese!” The woman waved her hands in the air. Claire found herself smiling at this foolery. The bellhop smiled as well. “You go to their rooms, trying to feel sexy,” complained the woman. “They insist on bargaining. So how can you feel sexy? You text your price.” The woman slipped an iPhone out of a pocket in her dress.
“Your dress is so tight,” Claire observed.
The woman laughed, slapped her hip, and continued her little skit. “He reads the price,” she said. “He shakes his head.” She shook her head. “He texts much lower.” She pantomimed more texting. “You text. He texts. On and on. Finally you march to the door.” She imitated striding to the door. “He grabs your skirt and voilà! You have a deal.” Claire laughed. She wondered how many iPhone bargainings her friend had undertaken already that evening.
“Chinese! ” The woman shook her head. ‘He strips. Mon Dieu! Where’s his thing? Did he leave it in his shorts?” They laughed together. “How are Japanese men?”
“I’m American,” Claire reminded her.
“Give me black men! You like black? They’re hung!”
The elevator reached Claire’s floor. The bellhop held the door open. As Claire left the elevator, the woman put her hand on Claire’s forearm. She smiled and said, “Welcome to Kinshasa, my friend.”
Impulsively Claire turned back and laid her cheek against the woman’s. Following the bellhop down the hall, she was quite surprised that she had done that.
She tipped the bellhop. Once he left her, she thought, Good heavens, what gives? There are thieves at the airport. The Chinese are colonizing this hotel. What would Joseph Conrad think of this place hardly a century after “Heart of Darkness”? But she had made a friend in the elevator. Things would not be so bad. She showered, fell into bed, thought about loving people, and wondered if her elevator friend was still involved in international negotiations. She laughed and welcomed herself to Kinshasa.