Deported: persona non grata

Trip Start Mar 24, 2010
Trip End Apr 12, 2010

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Where I stayed
The airport lounge....

Flag of Cote D  , Lagunes,
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What a day this has been and it's not even half over. I woke early and had a big breakfast; on travel days one never knows how things will go. I had been told to be at the airport 3 hours early, but no one ever does that, so I figured 2 hours would be enough for a flight that isn’t usually very full. That choice caused me some anxiety as things proceeded. I was at the front desk to check out at 07:45. I found that the hotel computer network had crashed and that all the bills were being done by hand from paper backup records that are, I suppose routinely generated for just such occasions. So they looked up how many nights I had stayed, ask how many breakfasts I had eaten checked phone logs looking for calls, looked at laundry receipts and meal bills from the restaurant. All this was summed up on an adding machine; then double checked. This took over half an hour, just for me. So my two-hour margin shrank to ninety minutes.

Finally leaving in the hotel shuttle, we were out on the very poor streets and dodging potholes when the driver’s cell phone rang. He was told to return to the hotel to pick up other passengers who also wanted to go to the airport. I protested, to no avail, that my time was getting short short. Back we went to the hotel. He walked inside and stood, waiting. After a few minutes passed I walked inside too to see that he was waiting on two guests who were going through the same paperwork ritual I had. If it would take as long as for me, my flight time would likely pass without me being on the plane. I’d been patient through my wait, but now I protested and said I really needed to go. They finally acquiesced and we started off. I arrived at the airport less than an hour from flight time; thankfully the desks were still open. In some airports the desks close an hour or even more before flights, because registration steps are done on paper and it takes lots of time.

As I finished checking in Mr. Fiaboé, who works at the airport, arrived to say goodbye. With his  airport badge he has access pretty much all over, so he sat with me in the departure lounge for a few minutes and we reviewed the last days and some plans for the future.

The Air Ivoire flight left on time which meant it landed quite early. Departure times are highly elastic with this airline so they calculate a large temporal cushion in landing times.

At the immigration counter I had a very unpleasant surprise. I was told that visas are now required for Americans and that it’s impossible to get one in country. I’ve been coming to Cote d’Ivoire for six ears now, and never needed a visa before. I was here two months ago and didn’t need one. Suddenly one is required and I was told there is no recourse in country. Immigration agents held my passport from then on.

I waited until I was alone with an agent, and asked specifically if there weren’t some way to purchase an entry visa. That’s a legitimate request on my part, not implying anything wrong, but it’s also an easy opening to allow officials to fix a price and ask for money if that’s what they’re after. If I’m charged for a visa and they put the money in their pockets, I don’t like it, but it’s not my fault. But they were all adamant this time. One friendly official told me that had recent and firm orders to deny entry to people arriving without visas. So they were going to have to put me on a plane to somewhere. They found that the plane back to Lomé had already left, so that wasn’t an option. It was Air Ivoire’s fault in one sense too, since they’re supposed to check visas before letting passengers check in for flights. I prepared to defend myself as best I could if they tried to send me someplace inhospitable.

Trying to run through my options quickly, I told the officer I had an onward ticket to Cameroon. Would he let me check and see when the next flight would be to Douala?  He agreed, and an inquiry revealed that there was a flight at 8:00 tonight. They agreed to let me wait in the transit lounge until then. So I paid the change fee for the ticket, and was happy there was a seat available. I don’t know where they would have flown me if I didn’t have that option. They could have just put me on the next Air Ivoire flight, since they consider the issue to be the airline’s fault

The agent who had charge of me seemed genuinely sad that there was nothing to be done; especially when he found out I was a pastor. And instead of making me wait in the actual holding room where I should have had to wait (which is a windowless and pretty miserable room with three chairs in it – I’ve spent some hours there in the past due to a problem with a cancelled ongoing flight, and it’s no fun at all) he took me up to the departure area where there is a restaurant and restrooms, handed me my passport and left. So here I will sit with my suitcase until 6:00 pm when I will go back downstairs and check in for the flight to Douala. I was able to reach Paul Tia on the phone and give him the sad news. He sounded pretty sad and dejected. I asked him to pass along my apologies and I also told him I’d try to come back as a soon as reasonably possible.  That’s been bad news on bad news for them. Western Union botched their transfer so they couldn’t attend the conference in Togo, and now my visit has to be cancelled when I’m actually already in the country.

Moïse Mabout in Cameroon is hitting high gear since I informed him of the advanced arrival. That will change our schedule quite a bit.

These are the kinds of unpleasant, unexpected and entirely unwanted occurrences that happen with sad regularity on this continent.
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