Daniel Kalinaki's weblog

A commentary on news and events in Uganda and elsewhere


Just an ordinary bloke.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Diary of a weary traveller - updated

BAMAKO, May 16, 2006

It is 41 degrees celsius in the shade and empty, desolate desert land lies on both sides of the road. I am in Bamako, Mali, where I have just arrived after a seven hour flight from Nairobi.

The flight, like all good flights, was uneventful. I once remember spending what felt like an hour circling Kigali airport in nasty turbulence. Give me a boring, uneventful flight anyday.

Anyway, the airport at Bamako is one of the lousiest I have seen. It makes Entebbe look like Heathrow or JFK. I had walked out of the pressurised cabin into the hot and humid desert and into the slightly warmer arrival's lounge, a small room teeming with busy bodies, a few immigration officials, and cops, who I would have a run in with, but more of that later.

I had filled in an arrival form, 'assisted' by one of the busy bodies, never mind that he did not speak a word of English. My own French, c'est un peu. I asked for a transit visa, had my passport stamped, handed over my yellow fever vaccination card to a bored official for examination and walked out on the other side, back into the heat.

I ask the busy body to find me a cab to take me to a hotel in Bamako so that I can freshen up while I wait for my connecting flight. I am led to a parking lot with three cabs and I choose the best. Ha. The best. Yeah. I do not want to dwell on description here. You are probably a busy person, reader, but suffice to say that it had been a very long time since I last rode in a car that was started by clenching two wires together.

The driver, an elderly man with grey hair and beard, looks 65, but he could be 40 for all I know (the desert is a harsh place to live, let alone drive a cab in).

I settle into the back of the dirty cab which is searing hot. As we roll down towards Bamako, I open the car window to get some fresh air adn I am hit by a gust of hot air, like someone has turned on a hair dryer or industrial furnace in my face. I roll the window back up. That way, if I steam to death in the back of the cab, at least the vultures will have to wait a few days for the glass to crack.

I eventually end up at the Hotel Olympe, an unsightly hulk designed or built by someone with more money that style/brains. I have no complaints, however, about the airconditioned lounge, where I rest my weary bones, check my email on one of their computers and head to the restaurant for lunch.

I order some chicken and rice and sit back and chill, avec un glas de coke. Le restaurant il ny pas chaud, c'est bon!

I am jolted out of my lull 20 minutes later when the waitress turns up weighed down by two plates, one with about a kilo of steamed rice, another with what looks like a cooked goat, but is actually a chicken.

I now realise why some of the guys from West Africa are easily over 6 feet; it is all that food!

After playing around in the pool, it is time to get back to the airport. I ask the hotel staff to get me a cab and the bellhop helps carry my bags to a cab that looks familiar. It is my cabbie from the airport, the old man around Bamako.

The bellhop tells him to take me to the airport, turns to me and tells me to pay CFA 5000. "Oi!" I howl in protest. "How come it is only CFA 5000? I paid this guy CFA 7500 to bring me here."

We both turn to the Old Man About Bamako, who smiles sheepishly as the bellhop inquires about the discrepancy, and lies through his grey beard that he was waiting for me all along. I think honesty does evaporate under the desert sun.

Anyway, we head back to the airport in the steaming, rickety cab and I am too relieved to get out, I forget and give the guy CFA 5000, instead of the CFA 2500 I had wanted to give him.

As I walk into the airport, I am stopped by half a dozen policemen lounging on chairs in the entrance, dressed in sky blue shirts and black trousers.

"Passport," orders one of them, and I hand the document over together with my ticket.

He flips through the pages, looks up at me, shakes his head, flips the pages again, then turns his head back to me and addresses me in French. I can figure out he is saying something about me violating my transit visa but I feign complete ignorance of French and force him to say in out in terrible English.

He says my transit visa does not allow me to leave the airport grounds and that since I did and went into Bamako, I have to get a tourist visa.

I politely explain to him that I was told by one of his own that I could go to Bamako, and that if that was wrong, it was an honest mistake by a law-abiding citizen with good intentions.

After another five animated minutes in which I insist that (a) I have no money, (b) I could get money if I could an ATM that could take my mastercard (a bit like asking for a jacuzzi in the desert) and (c) that in any case I would insist on getting a receipt for accountability, he asks me to go check in and then return to pay for the visa.

Yeah right. I kept thinking about him and his blue uniform as my plane soared above the west african skies, taking me to Ouagadougou.

Actually, that is what I wish had happened. As it turned out, I did check in and went to the lounge, waited for the boarding call, and walked to the plane. As I went through the last security check, another cop asked for my passport and boarding pass.

He did not even look at them; he put them behind him on the table and told me I was not leaving unless I had a visa. In the background, I could hear the final boarding call being announced. This was the only flight out of Bamako to Ouagadougou. The next was in two days, after my meeting had ended.

First I asked the guy to be reasonable and let me go. Then I realised that he wanted a bribe and I decided I would only give it to him as the very last resort. Since he was playing bad cop, I would play bad passenger.

'Look,' I told him. 'I have to be on that plane there whether you like it or not. So if u insist on me getting a visa, take me to the visa office, I will pay for it as long, and I repeat, as long as I am issued a receipt in accordance with internationally accepted norms and practices.'

To be totally honest, I was not that eloquent, but I made myself clear enough to show that I was not going to give a bribe. So i was led out of the building to the tarmac, led into Arrivals where I paid $30 for a visa, walked back out onto the tarmac, and onto the plane!

When I return to Bamako a few days later, I walk up to the visa office and insist on getting a visa this time, since I have a 24-hour lay off in the city. The visa official -- the same guy who issued me with a visa a few days earlier -- tells me that since I did not use it then, I could go into town on the visa.

That is how I ended up setting myself up in the Hotel Olympe in Bamako, hiring a cabbie and driving through the warm night catching in the beautiful sights of the city lights reflected in the Niger river, eating roast meat at a restaurant whose name I can't remember for the life of me, and drinking Red Label at Privilege, a decent nightclub with blond waitresses from Eastern Europe and hookers, some of whom looked like they had more fingerprints on their bodies than the FBI has on its databases.

After watching Watford walk all over Leeds into the Premiership at the hotel, I take another rickety cab to the airport. As I walk in, I am stopped again by the cops at the entrance but this time I confidently hand over my passport and ticket.

But you can never win with these guys. This time the issue is not that I do not have a visa, but that I have a single-entry visa but have been in the country twice. I point out that I offered to pay for a visa when I came in but was not not to...bla bla bla.

After another ten or so minutes of back and forth, the weariness finally gets to me and I just want to go home. A fellow passenger who has been mediating between the hostage, me, and the hostage takers, the cops, finally tells me that they are willing to let me go for a ransom of 40 dollars.

I fish through my wallet and chance upon a $5 note. I empty the rest of the money into my rucksack unseen and make great ceremony of pulling the $5 out of the wallet.

'This is all I have left as you can see,' I tell the cops. 'Will you please let me go?'

They grab the money like piranhas and allow me to go check in.

As I am checking in, another cop, one I haven't seen before, turns up and asks me to go see him after checking in. The lady at the check in desk gives me a knowing sympathetic look but advises me to just go to the lounge.

The 30 minutes in the lounge, waiting for the boarding call are the longest I have sat through in a long time. I expect one of the gendarmes to turn up any minute looking for me but they don't.

I have never been as relieved as I was when I got onto the plane and as we taxied on the tarmac, I did peep outside, just to make sure there was no jeep following the plane with a cop in blue shouting "Give us $35 or we shoot the damn thing down".

I would love to visit Bamako again, eat that delicious roast fish I had in the hotel again and find out what those Blondes from Belarus are doing in Bamako. But I will probably parachute in next time, just to avoid those piranhas at the airport. ENDS