Thursday, March 17, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Letting go of yourself (and your passport)

This post is the third in a series. While I focus on genealogy and stories of the past, I feel I must also tell my own story so future generations have stories to discover and share.
In 2007, I made the mistake of attempting group travel without the group. I had work to finish before I could leave on my excursion and knowing the group leader well, I told him not to worry about me that I would meet them in Paris. I had my Dad in tow, tagging along for the ride.
I was going as a grad-assistant/paper pusher and low and behold, snow in New York cancelled our first flight. That should be lesson enough not to schedule flights through northern cities in December when I have a timeline (I still make that mistake when the price is right). Not that this should have caused any alarm but my father and I were already going to be running the mad dash from immigration to terminal to make the chartered flight to Cotonou, Benin. With luck, we were able to rebook the next day, upgraded to first class on Air France via Cincinnati.

While we missed the original chartered flight I figured there were worse things than a weekend in Paris. Still was not sure how exactly we were going to get to our group of undergraduate students who, by now were well on their way into northern Benin farm country. We were determined. A last phone call with the professor left me assured our travel company knew we were on our way and I told him I would see him at our camp site, where ever that may be.
In Cincinnati, we found ourselves in the Air France First Class Lounge waiting for our flight and realized we needed alternatives for the ever in-case we don’t get flights to Benin. So, my father made hotel reservations near the airport for quick access should a flight pop up for us and I went in search of a Paris travel guide should we be there a few days.

We got to Paris in luxury after sipping wine, eating steak, and sleeping a good four hours. After checking in to the hotel, we headed off to the Pointe Afrique office to see what, if anything had been done since the groups’ departure, how soon we could fly, and how much it might cost. Snow in New York City was by no means Pointe Afrique’s fault after all.

Point Afrique could not have been more helpful. While on Saturday we only had a standby flight for Monday, things were looking positive. We spent the weekend touring around the city. It was my eighth trip to Paris (and my dad’s first) and I was getting fairly acquainted with La Ville-LumiĆ©re (the city of lights).
By Sunday evening we had a guaranteed flight to Ogadogou, Burkina Faso. This was not in the plans but decided to take it. I was still unsure how we were going to handle hiring a car and driver once getting there, securing a quick visa (as it was Sunday in Paris) and possibly some lodging in Ogadogou once we arrived.

My biggest hindrance in the process: my French skills. Now, I can order a beer or a bus ticket. I can do ok haggling in the African market place but hiring a car to take me across two land borders to find a group of American students in a town I’m not exactly sure how to pronounce or its location? That’s a bit above and beyond.
We did some online research and spoke to the good people at Pointe Afrique who gave me their office number in Ogadogou. They could not guarantee they would have a driver, but their office could assist me. We were told we would be able to get a visa in the airport if we had passport photos with us, something I always carry extra of (I even had 3 of my dad’s)… and this was the first time they had ever been useful!

When we arrived in Ogadogou and filled out the visa papers the man standing at a rather beaten up wooded table took our passports and said nothing. He threw them on a stack of other passports. He would not answer my questions. I didn’t know if we would have a contact outside of “customs,” I had nowhere to go, no passport and no knowledge of the city. I looked to a young guard, maybe 17 years old with a large riffle standing nearby and asked him in broken French about our passports and he said “tomorrow” that it would take 24 hours to get our passports back. I had hoped to be on the road shortly after my arrival.
Leaving this “terminal” as it were, was one of the hardest things I think either my father or I have ever done. We walked out of a “customs control” room leaving our passports, our identity laying on a table without any knowledge of the process or what was waiting for us on the other side of the door.

We went out to get our bags and was quickly approached by a man who knew my name and said “we go tomorrow.” He was from Pointe Afrique, the Paris office had made a phone call to them on our behalf. I was only slightly relieved. I could see my dad getting stressed over the situation. I had wanted to leave immediately for Benin. I explained to him as best I could about our passports. His English was only a little better than my French, but we managed. We got our things and he took us to a hotel and told us to rest and eat breakfast. So we did. He said he would be back. We had no other choice.
We were then in the middle of a new, remote city without our passports, local currency or any sort of guide. As stressed as we were to be in a country we had not anticipated visiting, we cleaned up and ate breakfast.

While at the hotel we met a Tuareg man from Niger who had left his home because of the Civil War and the closure of the airport in Niamey. He said he was out of work because there was virtually no trade and no tourism. We shared breakfast and he showed me the beautiful silver he worked in and gave me a bracelet.

Almost as soon as I had decided I was in for the long haul and prepared to lay down, I had a knock on my door. It was the guide. He said three words I will never forget: “We go now” and had our passports in his hand. The rules do not matter so much on Africa time. If the head of Pointe Afrique goes to the passport control officer and asks for a passport to be stamped early, it gets done. They may have had to pay him, but it gets done. We were only about twenty minutes behind the schedule I had given myself… but on Africa time, there is no “set” schedule.
We left the hotel and I found myself wedged into the back of an old, small geo-tracker complete with plastic windows along with our guide. My father rode upfront with a driver. We were told it is a “long time” to Kutagu, the small town we were trying to get to in Benin. We had to cross two land borders, something I was not looking forward to but was optimistic about since we had two locals with us that were affiliated with a reputable travel agency.

We drove for hours it seemed. We spoke French and English, listened to old cassettes, talked history and politics, and slept a little. We stopped for lunch before we got out of Burkina Faso and to rest the car in the heat. Vehicles can overheat easily in the desert sun if you run them too long in the hottest part of the day. No one wants to be stuck in between villages in the open sun.
When we exited Burkina Faso, Dad and I had to go into a little building where we had to tell a man in a uniform he was obviously proud of; our occupations, how long and why we were in Burkina Faso, and where we were going. They wrote it all down in their large book that no one will ever read or do anything with. I doubt the book will ever leave the little outpost. He stamped our passports without concern, seeming glad to have something to do. I was relieved as land border one was crossed.

As we entered Benin there seemed to be trouble with the vehicle in front of us. I thought maybe they would want to go through everything in the car. Not a problem, just a hassle. I began to think I was about to live one of the land border horror stories of corruption and greed. However, it was nothing of the kind. We were again asked to get out of the car and come down to their building, again where they looked at our passports and recorded answers to questions in a large, old book. This time however, the head guard was called to the front as they finished with us and was handed our passports. He was very stern-faced as he looked over our documents. I got nervous and could tell Dad was too.
Suddenly he got a very big smile and said “I LOVE Americans!” He was ecstatic that Americans were crossing his land border. He started to tell us that he had not had an American cross his border in a very long time and it gave him great pleasure to stamp our passports personally and welcome us to Benin. I was relieved. I told him in French I looked forward to visiting beautiful Benin. And we were on our way again.

A few photos from our trip once we reached our group (a needle in a haystack story for another time):

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