Cutting red tape like a mad samurai!! A day by day account.
This all started days before while still in country number 99: São Tomé & Príncipe(STP)
I couldn't find a boat to get back to Gabon. So I opted for a boat to Douala in Cameroun. That boat went via Príncipe to Douala and was delayed by several days mainly due to seasonal holidays (Christmas). I could not obtain a visa for Cameroun in STP as there is no country representation. But I received reliable information that I could get a transit visa on arrival or/and a visa. The boat from STP could however not get berth at Douala and ended up arriving at Tiko which is a military port in Cameroun.
My daily budget is $20/day which amounts to around CFA 10,000/day.
Here we go:
26.12.15 on the boat/Tiko
The ships agent receives documents + CFA 50,000 (5 days budget) and promises to return with a 1 month visa the same day.
Someone (not agent) returns with documents, a 5 day transit visa (?) which only costs CFA 10,000 and no change? Agent doesn't reply to phone calls anymore. I have some trouble leaving the port as the dates on the transit visa do not correspond to the actual date, but still managed to leave on a shore pass and end the day in Douala.
Ran some important administrative tasks during the morning. In the afternoon I visited the port and discovered that the next boat leaving for Gabon would not be for another 2-3 days (if that). Made a deal with a taxi driver to collect me the next morning at 05:00am and drive me straight to the border of Gabon. He would receive CFA 120,000 (12 days budget), if he was on time and only CFA 100,000 if he was late.
Got up at 04:30am, skipped breakfast, and was waiting on the street from 05:00am. No driver. At 05:10am I wondered about if he would ever show up and set myself a limit. 05:15am no driver...I left to look for an alternative option. I got on a motorcycle taxi and we raced towards a bus terminal. Unfortunately all seats were sold out. Off to another terminal: Bingo! Bus at 06:00am to Yaounde (Cameron's capital). Arrived at 10:00am and bought a ticket for an 11:00am departure to the Gabon border. Arrived at 5:00pm which is 1 hour before immigration closed. Made it?
Officer Akpeke Johnson (who remembered me from the first time I entered Gabon) stamped me out of Cameroun and headed to the Gabonese side. The immigration officer told me my visa was okay, but he requires an invitation letter? Why? Okay, I handed him the invitation letter. He told me the letter was not okay. I told him that if the visa is okay then all should be alright - right? He said no.
I slept at the border town of Kye-Ossi that night and made friends with Abdul Karimou, who is a motorcycle taxi driver. Abdul was a friend in need and it helped my spirits.
I got up early, skipped breakfast, and proceeded to immigration with my visa and a letter of intent from the Danish Red Cross. I was told to wait a little. 3,5 hours later the chief of immigration showed up and arrogantly dismissed me and told me to come back with a new letter of invitation.
At the Cameroun immigration my exit stamp was cancelled by Johnson and I left for nearby Ebolowa (2 hours away) which is the regional capital. A place with internet and much more.
I sought out an internet cafe and made friends with the owner: Ondo Mbita Bienvenue. Ondo took me to a nearby guesthouse and set me up for the night. He was also helpful with a million other things. I even managed to get a new invitation letter that night and was set for my third attempt the next day. Ondo was a friend in need and helped save my spirits.
I got up early, skipped breakfast, and headed straight for the bus terminal. Boarded a bus and made the 2 hours back to Kye-Ossi. I was stamped out of Cameroun by Johnson and proceeded to Gabon immigration which told me that my letter of immigration was great, but that my visa wasn't? What now? He points towards 2 dates on the visa: 24/02/16 and 23/05/2016. He then arrogantly told me to come back at the end of February. Where was my phone? Could I call someone? My phone...it wasn't in my pocket!! I had lost it! It contained 3 sim cards: Cameroun, Gabon and Congo.
I was broken. I couldn't take it anymore. I was done. I felt like I was crying, but not a single tear crossed my cheek. Everything collapsed in my head. My body was so tired and I was falling into a deep void. No more. I could not take it anymore. I was done.
Abdul showed up on his motorcycle and brought me back to life. I have since spent hours starring at those dates on the visa and I still cannot make any sense out of it?!? Was it supposed to say: 24/02/15 and 23/05/2016? Could I somehow get away with changing 16 to 15?
I asked Abdul to go to Kye-Ossi and locate a driver and a price for what it might cost to go to the border of Congo instead. For sure that would be expensive, but the 5 day transit visa would expire the next day. He returned with Said Kiyosse who wanted CFA 350,000 to take me the 700 km. We negotiated for a long time. I speculated if it was better to go back to Ebolowa and get an extension for my transit visa and then return to Yaounde to settle things. Or if it was better to spend the money and crosse the Congolese border and reach Brazzaville and settle things from there? And enter Gabon from the south!
Abdul told me that he knew these people at the border of Gabon. If they were treating me like this then they wouldn't let me pass even with a new visa. So it was settled.
Johnson and I had become friends and as he once again cancelled my exit he gave me his name and number in case I needed it. Said agreed to CFA 250,000 (25 days budget) and off we went. We tried calling my phone for a few hours until it was switched off. Goodbye phone.
Due to road conditions we had to return nearly all the way up to Yaounde again before turning slightly southeast. I would estimate that 80% of the road was really good and took 20% of our time. The remaining 20% was dusty and at times awful and probably took 80% of the 15 hour drive. We saw the sun set over the jungle on the last day of the year. People were partying everywhere. We were racing for the border. Soon we were covered in dust like everything inside Said's younger brothers car. We were coughing which made it worse.
Happy New Year. At 03:00am 3 drunk military personnel at a checkpoint stopped us. Far from the city and deep into the jungle. It was dark and nearby people were dancing to loud music. Not a great situation. One of the men at the checkpoint was particularly harsh and made a problem out of everything. Not a great situation. I was so tired I could hardly stand.
The man first demanded this...then that. I would provide him with everything and he would invent new things. He was scary. The situation was scary. But after much negotiation the 3 drunk men suddenly let us go? Said and I jumped in the car and raced off as bats out of hell.
At 04:00am we arrived at the Cameroonian border town of Mbala. We got out of the vehicle completely covered in dust. Said wanted more money. I reasoned that he wouldn't spend more than CFA 100,000 for the entire trip and that a monthly wage for. A truck driver wasn't more than CFA 100,000. So even if he had to pay his brother for the vehicle then he had made good money. The display of the car read: 696.1 km. Said shook my hand and left.
At 07:00am a truck appeared at the lonely silent immigration outpost. The driver was a jolly fellow who told me that he had made an agreement with immigration to come even though it was the first of January. He agreed to bring me across the border to the nearest town in Congo from where I could get a bus to Brazzaville 900 km away. The nearest town was 50 km away and the Congolese border town of Cabasse was 40 km away. I was so tired and hadn't slept that night.
At 08:00am a very happy immigration officer arrived on a proper motorcycle (650cc) while shouting "Happy New Year! - Happy New Year!". He, Djamila Augustin, greeted us personally and proceeded to raise the Cameroonian flag in a splendid ceremony. We were in the middle of nowhere?!? He suggested that we would first all go for breakfast together and afterwards he would open the border. I rode off with him on the back of his powerful motorcycle. I paid for his breakfast which was only a few dollars. Then we returned.
I was stamped out of Cameroun and drove across the border with the truck which was loaded with beer. After 40 km of a bumpy dusty road we arrived at Cabasse in Congo.
YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!!
I shook the hand of the immigration officer and said Bonne Année (French for happy new year)! He invited me inside his office and he took his shoes off before entering. I asked if I should take my shoes off and he replied no. I sat down and he looked at my passport. Then with a huge smile and with something strange in his eyes he looked at me and said that my passport had expired and that I couldn't enter. It was very clear that he enjoyed it!!
I told him that I entered Congo the first time on October 7th and that the visa is valid for 90 days so I still had 7 days. It has been explained to me that the 90 days count from my first entry.
He got angry and told me that my visa was only valid until December 21st 2015 so it had expired!! "Go back to Yaounde!"
I told him, very kind, quiet and polite, that the expiry date is a reference to when I can make my last "first entry" and not for the visa itself. If I entered Congo on December 20th I would have 90 days from then.
He told me that he was the immigration officer and that it was his job and that he knew the rules!!! "Go back to Yaounde!!"
I was thinking that this was about money? Corruption...?
I told him that there was a misunderstanding and that I couldn't return to Cameroun because my transit visa had expired.
He didn't care.
I told him that I was a goodwill ambassador of the Red Cross and that I could try to call the Red Cross to sort this out.
Then he confiscated my passport and told me I couldn't call anyone!! I had to leave right now and I would only get my passport back when I returned with a mototaxi to take me the 40 km back to Cameroun!!
I left his office confused and despaired! What could I do?!? It was an impossible situation and I couldn't call for help?!?
Outside some of the other border officials asked me to sit down with them. So I did. They asked me to explain and I did.
The police also wanted to talk to me. They told me that there was a German man named Herbert working at Cabasse (the border town). They told me that he could help me and that I should contact him.
The truck driver couldn't wait anymore and I had to go and get my bags. So I went to the truck. Then one of the officials came to me at the truck and said that I could use his phone to call the Red Cross for CFA 1,000. I gave him CFA 2,000 and called the Red Cross in Congo, explained the situation and said that I could be reached on that phone and if not I would call back from another.
When I returned to the immigration post someone else mentioned to get in touch with the German. So I tried to do that and the police helped. By chance Herbert's wife showed up on a motorcycle and was happy to see me. She called Herbert on her phone. She then told me to get on the bike and she would take me to him. The angry immigration officer stopped her. She discussed with him in French, but he kept saying no. After 5-10 minutes she gave up and told me to wait. The other officials seemed to agree with her. She drove off to get Herbert.
Now I was alone again and the immigration officer was really crazy!! He came to me, pointed at different truck, and told me to take my bags, get in and leave!! Right now!!!
I told him that I didn't want to go with that truck and that I wanted to wait a little longer. He said it was the last truck out before they closed the border so I had to get on right now!!! He was furious.
I told him that I could walk. The other officials said "Let him walk". But the officer got even more furious and screamed at me and pointed at my bags and the truck many times!!
He was a little man with crooked teeth who stuttered and he appeared evil and crazy to me. I thought he was going to try to hit me!!?
Some of the other officials got up from their seats now. Until now they had all been seated in a circle outside in the sun. I felt the pressure and picked up my bags and walked slowly to the truck. The immigration officer was furious and he was escorting me to the truck along with some of the other officials who were watching.
The truck driver didn't want to take me, but the officer forced them. Then Herbert arrived on his motorcycle! He was very friendly and we quickly spoke together in German. I told him in German that I was in big trouble and quickly explained the situation to him. He told me not to worry and that everything would be fine.
Herbert clearly knew everyone. He was calm and relaxed and told the immigration officer to relax and give us 5 minutes. It was completely out of the question!! The officer was furious and screamed and commanded that I would get into the truck NOW!!
Herbert continued to tell the officer to take it easy,calm down, relax...but in vain. He very softly said that he could call the project manager in Cabasse who happens to be Danish (and had some sort of power in the area)? He told the officer to calm down so that there was no reason to call the project manager and that we could solve everything quietly together.
The officer then grabbed my arm and firmly led me to the front end of the truck!! He was much smaller than me and no obvious match in a fight, but I didn't want to provoke him more than he already was so I let him lead me. The situation was dangerous.
He commanded me inside, gave my passport to the co-driver and instructed them not to give me the passport, but to hand it over to the immigration in Cameroun. It was very chaotic!
There was nothing I could do. I was in the middle of the truck with the driver on one side and the co-driver on the other and the co-driver wouldn't even give me the passport long after we left. As we left I heard that Herbert kept trying to calm the officer down. Hopeless?!?
40 km later I arrived at the Cameroun border and met with immigration in Cameroun. They told me it was a political demonstration. They said they knew the officer and that this was about people from Congo having difficulties going to Europe so he wanted to prove a point with me and make it difficult for me? My exit from Cameroun was then cancelled a third time.
Augustin (the Cameroonian immigration officer from earlier) bought me beer at the local village and sponsored a room for me for the night. Augustin commanded one of his officials to bring my bags to the room. We sat around with the village locals who were dancing, drinking beer and having a continued New Years party under the bright sun. After 2 strong beers I was ready to fall down. It was surreal. What now?!? Stuck between two borders in Central Africa! Should I call the Danish embassy somewhere? Should I call the Red Cross? Augustin told me to meet him for dinner later on. I was in my room around 4pm. In the room I remember holding a clean pair of boxer shorts in my hands, getting ready to take a bath and clean myself from all the dust. Then I passed out...
Quite a story - huh? Now I wonder: Why is the immigration not cooperating with the Red Cross and at least giving me a chance to call? And my answer to that: He personally didn't want me to cross and he certainly didn't want me to meet Herbert which is why the angry little immigration officer suddenly was in such a hurry to get me on the truck and cross the border ASAP.
I woke up 15 hours later holding a pair of clean boxer shorts in my hands. The immigration chief, Hamadou Yakoubou, helped me with various paperwork and an official signature so that I could travel all the way back to Yaounde without problems to meet immigration there.
I got from Mbala to Djoum in a small 5 seat vehicle which fitted 8 passengers plus the driver!! I was sharing the front seat with someone and so was the driver. Behind us were the other 5. The driver looked very sleepy!! For several hours we drove across the first 250 km on the dusty dirt road. Then the driver finally fell asleep and the vehicle took to the right at high speed!! A second before our 9 souls crashed into the steep ditch my left arm automatically reached out and my hand grabbed the steering wheel and corrected us back upon the road. The driver woke up and looked at me rather confused. He then nodded and continued driving? I looked around...everyone was asleep. They will never know.
From Djoum to Sangmélima we fitted 8 people into an even smaller 5 seat vehicle. And that's were I spent the night in a little guesthouse. I went to bed around midnight.
At 04:30am I headed towards the bus terminal. Skipped breakfast again. Arrived to Yaounde around 08:00am and took a taxi straight to Madagascar which is an area in town with a rather bad reputation. But I've stayed there before and know my way around. Besides: It's cheap.
Got up early. Had breakfast! Went to a cyber cafe. Printed out all the docs I needed. Headed to immigration. Went on a marathon to 9 different offices and finally had a 7 day exit visa in my passport. 7 days to get new visas for both Gabon and Congo and reach the border. Should be enough time - right?
What do you think? ;)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor)
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga