This week on Wandering West Africa, visa runs at several embassies with some sightseeing on the side.
Arriving from Douala, Yaounde was a welcomed change of pace. The peaceful capital of Cameroon is much less hectic and busy. Nestled in the surrounding hills, the city feels a lot smaller than it actually is.
After checking in at Hotel Franco, I met with the General Manager, a friendly Belgian named Patrick. Throughout the week, we would share several beers, whiskeys, and meals not to mention some great conversations. Patrick has been working throughout Africa and even managed the Mille Collines, also known as Hotel Rwanda. He gave me a warm welcome to the hotel.
As I arrived on the weekend, I spent most of my time catching up with some work (you may have noticed). I was also planning my strategy for embassy visits for the coming week. I actually dislike the weekends while traveling in Africa, because they are days that embassies are closed, hindering your progress.
Democratic Republic of Congo Visa
When Monday rolled around, I had documents printed and photocopies ready. I started at the Democratic Republic of Congo Embassy. The DRC visa is suppose to be one of the harder visas to get, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I tried in Libreville, I was outright rejected because I wasn’t a resident of Gabon.
This embassy was tucked away in the corner of the embassy area and a bit difficult to find. On entering, I was told to leave my phone before I could go upstairs. No security check.
The small squarish waiting room had a window into the administrative area. A lady who sometimes spoke through the window and other times came out, asked me what I wanted. I explained I needed a visa and showed her my paperwork.
She went through it and then handed it to a man in a suit who seemed to be the decision maker. He glanced through the paperwork and said that my letter from the hotel was addressed to the wrong embassy and I needed a new letter. Then he told me I had to pay 100,000 CFA (around $170). He told me to come back tomorrow once I had my paperwork.
I came back that afternoon with the corrected letter and cash I picked up from an ATM. Both the lady and man were still there and they asked “Didn’t I tell you to come tomorrow?” I explained that they did, but I was in a rush and I happened to get the letter and cash this afternoon, so I just brought it for him.
He looked through the papers, took the cash and said to come back tomorrow afternoon.
Could it be that easy? Yes apparently it could. The next day I arrived and the visa was in my passport stamped and ready to go!
DRC visa attempt 2: Success!
I visited the Chad embassy on Monday as well. It was quite difficult to find because it was off a small dead end dirt road and was very easy to miss. (Representative of the country?)
Outside a man on a wooden bench registered visitors in a book and kept bags on the bench. In French I was told to wait, then eventually he asked me what I wanted. “Visa? Ok go.” I walked up the stairs and waited for a man in a suit to casually walk down the hall and open the door to his room. I waited outside until he asked me in.
From the first interaction, I knew this was not going to be easy. He explained that I’m not a resident which will make this “very difficult” and also I don’t have a hotel or flight booking. He told me to come back tomorrow.
I came back the next day in the afternoon with a flight booking and hotel confirmation. The man said “No embassies see people in the afternoon! Come back tomorrow morning.”
Two days later, I was back and I almost didn’t recognize the guy, probably because he seemed so confused as to why I was there. He asked me who told me to come back and I said a consul from this officer. “That was me! I’m the same person!”
Ugh. Great start.
He looked through my passport and commented that my hotel reservation from booking.com wasn’t good enough. “There is no hotel stamp on this! It is not official!” Then he started explaining that I needed someone to invite me and they will send a security team to visit that person to make sure he exists and confirms my details. Meanwhile my pleas in broken French about how I had to catch a train on Friday and I didn’t have much time, were unheeded. I asked to speak to the consul that he was checking information with which seemed to offend him. “I am the one you need to speak to!”
I understood that he was not interested in the slightest to grant a visa and would do whatever was possible to make sure I didn’t get one.
Chad visa attempt 1: Fail.
Central African Republic
On Monday, after stopping by Chad, I decided to head to CAR to see if they would be more open with granting a visa. Their embassy was a bit on the outskirts of the area but not too difficult to find with a taxi.
I knocked on the gate of the embassy for awhile until someone sitting about 30 meters away eating at the food stall yelled at me “push!”
In the courtyard, I walked to the reception on the left. A man in an ill-fitting suit asked me what I wanted. Then he directed me to the office of an administrative lady. In French I explained I wanted to visit CAR. She then handed me two copies of the same form that I had to fill out twice, then took two passport photos, a copy of my passport, and yellow fever vaccination card. She said in English “70,000 francs” ($120). I handed her the cash which she counted and she told me to come back tomorrow at 10 a.m.
The next day at 10 a.m. she was no where to be found. The receptionist told me to come back in an hour or two. At noon, the receptionist led to me to a waiting room where this lady was trying to fix a coffee machine. After fiddling around with it for 10 minutes, as there were thirsty visitors waiting for her, she slammed it shut and it seemed to be fixed. Then she motioned for me to follow.
Back in her room, she wrote out my information in a ledger and had me sign at the end. Then she handed back my passport with a CAR visa stamped inside. The fee on the visa was 50,000. I can guess where that other 20,000 disappeared to, but I wasn’t complaining. For such a simple process I would have gladly paid the “handling” fee.
Central African Republic visa attempt 1: Success!
Having already tried for a Nigeria visa in Lome, Cotonou, Libreville, and Buea, I wasn’t too hopefully at this Embassy, but I would give it my best.
As my visas were being processed, I couldn’t go until Tuesday to the embassy. Going through the thick metal door, you are screened through a window before a security guard scans your body and bag with a metal detector. Then you must deposit your bags and phones in a locker before being allowed inside. The guard asked “there’s nothing in here to hurt me?”
“Of course not!” I smiled.
A man next to the guards room briefly interviews you to see if you have a reason to be inside. Transit visa seemed good enough, so he let me through. I got a visitor tag and was allowed into the visa processing room. Security was no joke.
In the rectangular room, several people were sitting around. I walked up to the window and sat in the car. The lady asked in English what I was doing. I explained I needed a transit visa. I had a flight to Brussels and a hotel booking. She took one look at my passport and said “Belgium? We don’t like the Belgians. We have a bad relationship with their embassy.”
“I can’t be held responsible for their actions madame.”
“It’s YOUR country!”
This was not off to a good start. She asked why I was transiting through Nigeria while there are direct flights from Douala. I explained that the flights were half the price. Then she looked through the paperwork and found some grammatical error with my letter from my “company.” I said I could get a new letter with the grammar corrected. She said to wait, as the consul probably won’t let me get a visa anyway as I’m not a resident.
So I waited. Then waited some more. Eventually she came into the room and said I should come back in the afternoon.
I went out for lunch at a Chinese restaurant of all places for some overpriced fried rice.
Back in the embassy the lady told me to wait. Eventually she came out and took my papers and walked back inside. I could hear her talking to the consul who was almost yelling “What if I didn’t grant him a transit? Did he think about that? I don’t have time for this now!”
So the secretary came back out and said to come back tomorrow. Yes ma’am!
The next day I was seated waiting. I had the corrected documents. The secretary assisted the others in the room. Eventually the room was full as everyone was waiting for the consul to plead a case of some sort. There was a family from Equatorial Guinea trying to get a visa to go to Abuja to process a visa for Australia. There were four men trying to get work visas for a conference on Saturday. The secretary came in and told us to leave and come back later. “It looks bad if you are all sitting here. The video camera sees it and it looks like I’m not doing my job! Today is sports day, the consul won’t be in till later.”
So a couple of hours later I was back. The room was empty except for a few people waiting. The secretary asked me to wait and I requested the visa form, which she gave me and I filled out. She was helpful in sorting my documents and removing an invitation letter from the hotel. She said, “you are doing a transit, so you don’t want to show the hotel invitation.” She collected the papers and my visa fee of 131,000 CFA ($220).
Eventually the stars aligned and the consul was in the office AND ready to see me. The secretary took me to his room. I was slightly nervous as I have been waiting days for this moment.
He didn’t even look at my documents and just asked what I was doing. I explained I was transferring through Nigeria by road and then would fly out of Lagos.
“By road? How will you go by road? Do you have a car? Do you have a plan?”
“I was just going to take public transport.”
“You expect to get to your flight on the 24th and you are going by road?” and he proceeded to explain why the road is a bad idea with checkpoints and pot holes. I agreed and said I could book a flight instead.
Then he asked me to talk to the secretary and said he only wanted to give me a three day visa. I said I would appreciate more as I’ve had flights canceled on me before and my visa was running out. He said maximum four day.
I was then ushered back to the waiting room and sat waiting for the secretary. She had now disappeared… After another hour she appeared and seemed surprised that I was waiting. “I was in the other room!”
She went in and talked to the consul, then came out and said I should take a flight which I agreed to. Come back tomorrow morning.
Back the next day, I was the only person in the room. The secretary greeted me and as I waited started processing the visa. She registered it and even gave me a receipt for the amount paid which was surprising. Then after about thirty minutes of waiting, she handed back my passport. It was glorious. I had finally received my Nigeria visa and it was valid for a whole 7 days!
Nigeria visa attempt 5: Success!
Now as I spent my entire week in different embassies I figure I might as well visit a few more. I went to the Belgian Embassy in hopes of getting an invitation letter for Angola. There was a long line and I didn’t feel like waiting for my turn. I stopped in the Chinese Embassy for the same reason and wasn’t even let inside. I was instead given a phone number to call and sent my way.
Then I decided to visit the Saudi Arabia Embassy to request a visa, more out of curiosity for what they would say.
Located next to the US Embassy, there was a lot of security with armed guards patrolling the streets. I went into the wrong door at first and was questioned by a guy who explained the visas were a different entrance. I went to the other entrance where a guard slouched on a plastic chair with his machine gun on his lap waved me in. Another man checked me with a metal detector, registered me and let me in.
I got to a small corridor with a glass window. Behind a single man walked up to serve me.
“Saudi Arabia does not yet issue tourist visas,” the man said apologetically.
Ok then. How about a transit visa? Could I transit through?
“Yes, but you need to prove you had no other option but to transit through.” Transit visas would be valid for a maximum of three days.
The friendly man asked what I did in French. I said “Import, export” and he said “Ah you can get a business visa! Just have someone coordinate and invite you.”
I also asked which passport would be better to travel with, a Belgian or Australian. He said “Belgian is much stronger!”
That short visit was surprisingly helpful from a surprisingly friendly man!
Since the US Embassy was right there, I decided to pop in to see if they could help with an invitation letter to Angola. After I dumped all the contents of my bag out and went through multiple metal detector screenings, I was allowed into a room packed with people waiting. I didn’t not have the patience to wait for that answer. The embassy grounds were nice though.
Besides getting visas like it was my full time job (which it kind of is), I also did some sight seeing.
I visited the National Museum which is housed in the former presidential palace in the center of town. Besides the 10,000 franc entrance fee, the experience was quite positive. The displays are well laid out though there isn’t too much of value on display. Well spoken guides educate the visitor through each room from musical instruments, to art, culture, clothing, archeology, and then history explained through rooms full of pictures. Unfortunately no pictures are allowed for some mysterious reason.
After that I stopped by the Reunification Monument celebrating the joining of the two Cameroons to form one.
There aren’t too many other sights to visit in town. The government and commercial buildings in the center are worth a glance, but not too much besides that. I did get a lot of work done and could relax at Hotel Franco which was really in a convenient location. The pool was very appreciated on a hot day as well.
This week was a good test of patience. It’s like working at the DMV full-time, except your job is to stand in line and sometimes those lines lead to nothing. Visas in Africa are known to be difficult and securing three in a week is a pretty solid outcome.
My last night in Yaounde, I went out to grab dinner and some drinks with Patrick who took me to a local bar “Platinium”. They served some tasty kebabs and cold beers. We chatted about Africa, travel, the future, and why the world seems like such a small place. He asked me an intriguing question.
“Where will the world be in 50 years?”
Today I left Yaounde by train for Douala, where I should catch my flight to Brazzaville. What adventures do the Congos hold for me?