Monday, January 30, 2017

The Big Pivot

Friday AM I arrange for a taxi from my perch in the middle of nowhere overlooking the ocean back to the wildlife center in Limbe.  Turns out that the shaved ice in those delicious banana smoothies wasn't made from purified water.  You mean tap?  The French volunteer shrugs his shoulders.  Oh well, I guess that's why I bring along Immodium.  I order another.

I then go upstairs to again say hello to the director Guillaime, and to tell him that I am going to Douala that evening.  He points out that I can hire their driver to take me door to door to the airport for $30.  That's a lot of money in Africa, and in my younger scroogier days I might have opted to save the $15 over the cost of public transport and taxis.  But I wisely accept.  Besides it will give me more time to do stuff here in Limbe.

The main stuff I want to do is to spend $5 and have a motorbike guy drive me the 15 miles up to Buea and back.  The town is 5000 feet above sea level on the slopes of Mount Cameroon, and we go up on the scenic old Tea Road.  True to its name, after a while we are puttering past many endless acres of carefully pruned tea bushes. Not as splendid as Sri Lanka, but then Cameroon isn't especially known for its tea.  When we get to Buea it is just another drab, uninteresting town.  But it is somewhat in the clouds, and the air is noticeably cool and refreshing.  Ah!  That kind of confirms my theory that the reason that I am feeling so perpetually wiped out isn't just my age, but rather the stinking tropical sea level heat.

We head back down to Limbe, and when I arrive my theory is spectacularly confirmed.  All of a sudden everything is horribly sticky and lethargic.  Back at the wildlife center there is still a couple of hours before the driver comes.  So I just sort of hang out beside the gorilla enclosure.

I suppose that I have become somewhat of a gorilla snob, but the mountain ones that I saw in Rwanda after huffing and puffing 3000 feet up a volcano seemed much more majestic than these guys.  Still there is definitely something to be said about sort of splitting fields with gorillas on their home turf.

The driver arrives and we start east for the 45 miles drive to Cameroon's biggest city.  Only a couple of towns and plenty of flat land lined with banana palms, palm oil trees, and various other planting.  It's a two lane road and the constant Third World game of chicken keeps things interesting.  Then we get to the outskirts of Douala.

Actually, there is no outskirts.  All of a sudden you are just in this hot, ugly, smoggy mess.  And do I mean ugly and smoggy.  The intensity is really overwhelming.  And I've been to some intense places in my life.  Also, all of a sudden all the signs stop being in English and start being in French.  And from this point on in Cameroon no one will speak a word of English.

I am really glad that I popped for the $30 drive.  Even though at some point we do pass an area of nice middle class apartments and even a real modern supermarket, I really don't care to have to deal with all of this hot, humid hassle any more.  And although you may argue that three days was not enough time to get to 'know' Cameroon, I would argue back that I really don't care to know any part that was worse than Limbe.  And it turns out that it all is.  Besides, the northern half is off limits because of Boko Haram, the Anglo part is shut down because of that strike, and heading towards Gabon and the Congos in crappy buses and trucks is...

See, that's the sheer beauty of my plan.  Because although the great majority of Africa is actually very dry, Gabon and the Congos are the one part that is the hot swampy, buggy, disease ridden nightmare of all those old African jungle movies. And for the years that I had been thinking about this I didn't know exactly how I was going to finesse that part.  But then I came up with the Equatorial Guinea-Sao Tome-Angola gambit, and it all fell into place.

Problem was, though, that it all was a gambit.  First, how was I going to buy tickets from an airline that didn't have a website?  That was resolved when I found Angel from Ruta 47.  We finally finalized the tickets when I was in Lagos, and now I was about to find out whether or not that had worked.

I got dropped off at the airport, but the Ceiba ticket window hadn't opened yet.  About an hour later it did and with a little trepidation I asked if my name was on the manifest list.  It was!  Even more amazing, the flight was actually leaving tonight relatively on time.  I logged out of Cameroon, the Cameroonian TSA lady confiscated my empty water bottle, and I sat there dryly in the departure lounge for another hour or so.

At 10 PM they led us out to the tarmac where a smallish prop plane was waiting, we boarded, and twenty minutes later we were thirty miles out at sea at Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.  The next part of my gambit revolved around the fact that apparently Americans are the only people who don't need visas for EG.  I was nervous about the 'apparently', but thanks to our good friends at Exxon Mobil the immigration guy didn't give my passport a second glance, just went STAMP, and I was in.

You see, EG is one of those oil rich places, and all the big, clean, modern  lit up buildings around the airport were really shocking after the real Africa that I had been in.  This wealth also meant that the cheapest hotel in town was $125 a night, and a $5 cab ride for 3 km later and I was there.

Ibis Hotels are owned by the same company that owns Motel 6, and they are the international version of same, maybe a half step better.  But after sleeping on rust bucket ferry boats, etc., this was a touch of heaven.  Nice, clean, and unbroken.  It was now midnight, although I had to set up the old netbook and Skype the wife to let her know I was still alive.  Then a quick shower with instantly hot water and soft, sweet sleep on a big comfortable bed.

Since there had been no internet in Cameroon I hadn't been able to let Angel know that I would definitely be there, but at 10 the next morning as I was devouring the breakfast buffet he showed up to say hello.  An older Spanish guy from the land of Quixote, his business was a quixotic attempt to have a tour company in a place that virtually no one has ever heard of and where it is almost impossible (if you are not an American) to get a visa for.

Not to mention that it also has the reputation of, next to North Korea and Turkmenistan, being the harshest dictatorship in the world.  Here, though, let me assure you that this is some more of that fake news that you've been hearing about.  In reality, the place feels absolutely no differently than any other African country.  Why do they make this stuff up?

Sure, the oil wealth could be spread more evenly.  But, ahem, our wealth could be spread more evenly, too.  And we have way less excuse than African dictators do.  Besides even the everyday people in EG seem more prosperous and less despairing than, say, those of Cameroon or Nigeria.  What's more they seem to have high standards of everyday honesty and integrity.

Angel had dropped me off downtown, and I walked around for a while.  There was a nice old Spanish church and a little Spanish plaza, but most of Malabo was a typical small African city catering to the needs of typical Africans with their typical everyday needs.

I found the place where communal minibuses head out for the rest of the island and I bought a $3 ticket to Luba, at the end of the line.  This took about an hour and a half to reach, and although the island is a result of a brother volcano to Mount Cameroon, that was shrouded in mist, and most of what I saw was jungle/forest and banana palms.  Luba was a suitably derelict little place with feeble Saturday market activities, so I bought another $3 ticket back to Malabo.

Angel had told me where the best pizza was to be had, so I headed on over.  The pizza was indeed good, but what was really surprising was the huge number of expats who were hanging around.  Usually in Africa you virtually never see a white person, but here they were all over the place.  Mostly seeming to be Spanish, which made sense, since EG is the only Spanish speaking country in Africa.  But they didn't look burly enough to be oil workers.  And some of them looked like the type of European who you wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of a drug deal gone bad with.

And where were all those purported Americans?  Turns out that they are all housed in some gigantic gated guarded compound that they are all too afraid to leave.

Then next door to a (for Africa) really well stocked supermarket, and back to the Ibis, where I could luxuriate for one more evening of comfort and ease.

The flight to Sao Tome was originally scheduled for 10:30 AM but when I saw Angel he told me that it had been changed to 12:30.  But was there any chance that they would change it back?  No, they wouldn't do that.  And I should also be glad that the flight is going, because Ceiba has been canceling a lot of their flights recently.  But when I returned to the Ibis the spaced out reception clerk said, oh, yeah, there was a message for you from an Angel who said to go two hours early.

So at 6 the next morning I was up, showered, and down at the breakfast buffet.  I had reserved the free shuttle service the night before, but of course the reception clerk had spaced that out, so some flunky had to go out to the highway on a trafficless Sunday morning to find another $5 cab for me.

My string of good luck continued, though, and the flight did take off relatively on time.  And after a brief stop at the capital of Gabon we headed west for the volcanic island of Sao Tome.

Now Sao Tome, besides being perhaps the most obscure country in the world, is also one of the poorest.  So they're trying to push the tourism thing, and to that end they set up an online visa service.  Except that the website doesn't work.  And there are no phone numbers in the U.S. for anything Sao Tomean--UN, embassy, whatever--that work.  So it took a couple of weeks and a lot of tension before I got the visa permission letter which I would absolutely have to have if I didn't want to be sent back to wherever on the next plane.

When the immigration girl looked at it, though, she said, 'Why did you do this?  Don't you know that if you stay for less than 15 days you don't need a visa?'  So, $30 of unnecessary visa money later I was legally in Sao Tome and another bit of my gambit had worked out.

Like I said, Sao Tome is really poor.  And after the Ibis the plain pension type room that I now found myself taken to looked pretty drab.  But the a/c, the hot water, and the wifi all worked, and that's a pretty good trifecta for Africa.  Moreover the staff turned out to be really nice and helpful.

In fact, all of the people on Sao Tome turned out to be really, genuinely friendly.  Kind of like the trust of a bygone era.  And I would need that Monday morning because this was going to be the most critical piece of the gambit: Getting the Angola visa.

Now if you try to have a visa agency in the States get you an Angola visa they will tell you that they can't do it.  Many a traveler trying to get overland to South Africa has been caught in the lurch.  Angola just doesn't give out visas.

BUT my research had found that in Sao Tome they do.  Not real visas, mind you.  But five day transit visas.  And since it only takes three day long bus trips to get from Luanda to Namibia, it can be done.

On the other hand, in Africa in general you can't take anything for granted.  So bright and early on Monday I hopped on the back of a motorbike and was taken the few blocks to the other side of town and the Angola Embassy, which was just opening up.  There the nice friendly lady sadly told me that, no, it was impossible to get an Angola visa?

But, I explained in my fractured Spanish, I knew of people who had done it.  She shook her head sadly, no again.  Then I realized: But I only want a transit visa.  Oh, she said, maybe that is possible.  But you would have to get it at the Consulate.  What?  This tiny town has both an embassy and a consulate?  Apparently so, and she was nice enough to have the embassy driver take me over there.

Here another lady, in rapid fire French, laid out the procedure: Fill out the form, photocopy your passport, yellow fever vaccination, driver's license, and airline ticket.  Also go across town to the EcoBank and deposit $30 in Angola's bank account.  But I haven't got my airline ticket because I don't have a visa yet.  Can I get it by Thursday's flight?  Yes, bring this all in by Tuesday morning and you will get the visa Wednesday.

I then walked along the shoreline about a km or so to the EcoBank, waited in line for a half an hour, and deposited the $30.  Back to the guest house where I ordered the ticket on line.  Then a complicated procedure where I had to transfer the confirmation to the guest house's computer so that it could be printed out.  And now it is all siting in a file folder ready to be taken back over to the nice consulate lady tomorrow at 9.

So gambit far, so gambit good.


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