And I was starting to think intra-Africa travel wasn’t so bad..
Having been to Accra for the Emerging viruses workshop in November and from that trip thinking the city was quite interesting and also feeling that they were one of the most organized and progressive West African countries I was looking forward to our 36 hr transit on our way to Namibia. I knew you could obtain transit and emergency Visas on arrival so we didn’t bother organizing any type of Visa ahead of time (I think you know where this story is going..). Stew offered to take us to the airport at 6am for our 8am flight and, after a quick stop to pick up a homemade breakfast of cake and chocolate covered almonds from our friend Jackie on the side of the road (she had texted Stew in the early morning hours- ‘I’m under the streetlight’). Goodies in hand we continued on our way.
At the airport it immediately became clear that the airport staff that decide who will board the plane had a problem with the fact that we didn’t have Visas. Jackie and Stew I know were googling Visa requirements for Canadians as we tried to explain that we could obtain them on arrival. No, no, they said- you are therefore longer than 24hrs therefore you need a transit Visa. Yes, yes we said- we know and which we can obtain on arrival. This went back and forth for an hour at which point we were getting close to missing our flight. They said their boss couldn’t take the risk that Ghana immigration would fine them for letting us board the plane and arrive in Ghana without the proper documentation. I must say I was both frustrated and near tears because I was so exhausted from the last 2 weeks of work and also somewhat amazed theat they were taking their jobs so seriously. I flat out asked if there was anything we could do to board that plane, and by that we all knew I meant ‘can I bribe you to board that plane’. That is in fact the first time I have offered a bribe and fitting that it be our last day in the country. They insisted we could take the Accra flight the next day but of course when they confirmed the flight details it was going to Lagos- unhelpful. They had said that was a good solution because we would then be under 24hrs. We knew the next day flight to Accra didn’t exist otherwise we would have booked it.
Ok so now we’re down to 5 minutes to boarding. Jackie finds on www.ghanaimmigration.com that transit Visas are available for travelers up to 48 hrs. Stew bribes (I mean- provides money for their breakfast) the guys checking passports to smooth our transition though while in the meantime we print this web page out for them to see in writing (on the computer screen is no good at Banjul International) and show it to the airport guys (I say guys because we are not certain who they are or what they do). Guy 1 in charge had assured us this would be enough but then his upon consulting with his boss it was decided, that no this would not be sufficient. At this point you ask yourself for the 50th time why this is so bloody difficult. Their little book of regulations didn’t say anything about the 48hr transit Visa therefore the fact that it was on Ghana’s official immigration site didn’t matter. They are now showing us letters they hav recived from Ghana immigration saying in the past they have let people board without Visas and the airport has been fined. We are trying to explain that Canadians, as part of the Commonwealth follow most of the same Visa policies with the US, who are mentioned in their book. We also reinforce that we have provided evidence that we can obtain a transit Visa on arrival. Obviously no sway. They did the final passenger count, at which point I was prepared to give up. At this point another employee from the airline shows up and he somehow enables a call to Ghana immigration and someone answers. They will double check and call us back. Guy 1 call the flight crew to delay the flight by 5 minutes, 5 minutes only- then adds right before hanging up ”..or 10”. We are standing at the check in desk waiting for someone in Ghana to call back so that we don’t miss our entire flight series to Windhoek, from where we also fly back to Canada 5 weeks later. Waiting. Waiting. Oh! Call comes in. We are cleared for the 48 hr Visa (Yes Immigration says- they offer 48 hr transit Visas to pretty much anyone, even Canadians. This is, after all, what the website says..). Ok let’s get on that plane. Oh wait. Now they want to know about our Namibian Visas. We don’t need a Namibian Visa- that is very clear from the Namibian immigration website. So as a tip if you want to leave Gambia you need to be able to prove, and not just by providing website printouts, that you do or do not need a Visa for any destination or transit country.
I just can’t take it and walk out of ear shot. Don does some magic, maybe he went and printed off that page… I’m not sure what happened during those minutes. But now we’re clear. We back and forth about checking Don’s bag- it has all his camera gear in it plus a lot of USD and they want us to check it. At this point what can you do? It gets checked, and then we are rushed through security, put on an empty bus and driven to the plane. I thought we looked like crazy people by the time we boarded and the, we both agreed later adorable and fulfilling all the of the gay stereotypes, flight attendant welcomed us and assured us he would be by shortly to provide a drink. I can’t even believe we are on the flight. All our baggage is somewhere in the main cabin because it didn’t have time to be checked (although was shuttled into checked baggage on arrival). We touch down in Dakar 25 minutes later and I am still trying to calm myself down.
We arrive in Accra after a 3 hr flight from Dakar, head to immigration. All is fine. In fairness I will point out that they asked us for our transit Visa clearance letter and Don explained we didn’t know we needed one. This is not mentioned on the website but apparently you need a letter from the Embassy indicating you need a transit Visa. We pay what I consider an exorbitant price for a transit Visa (50USD each) and head to immigration. But wait- we are stopped for our Yellow Fever certificates. I’m pretty sure they were only checking select bribe worthy individuals. I show mine but Don’s is in his cameras/cash carryon bag that was whisked to checked baggage. Lady 1 suggests that is ok but maybe we can just give Lady 2 something. I can’t believe this- Ghana- the best place in West Africa (in my opinion) is disappointing me with flagrant bribes. This isn’t supposed to happen in reasonable, progressive Ghana! I say I can get his certificate from the luggae and bring it back. No, no- you should just give Lady 2 something. What is a good amount for a Yellow fever bribe? Turns out 20USD is satisfactory. The kicker of all this is when we get to the immigration area immigration guy 1, who is helping direct people to a free officer, looks at Don’s passport and just tells us to go around the side desk and skip customs. He doesn’t even look at mine. Come on Ghana! Are you kidding me? No, not at all. What a fitting (and only days later hilarious) departure from The Gambia.
I want to give a big, Big, BIG thanks to Jackie and Stew without whom we would have never made it to Accra.
We were picked up at the airport and taken to our nearby hotel where we spent the entire day sleeping and occasionally waking up to watch videos streamed from u-tube, something that has, except for about 3 days out of the last 15 months, not been available in our apartment in Gambia because the internet signal is so poor. The next day we headed into Osu, the trendy part of Accra, but as most things were closed we has a busy day of eating, then having desert, then going for a drink at the various restaurants/bars that were open on Sunday. Without hassle we boarded our 11pm overnight flight to the German city of Windhoek!