Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lost in Gabon

Gulliver at the Economist's buisness travel blog reports:

A CANADIAN man is suing Lufthansa for C$86,000 ($84,000), claiming the German airline flew him to the wrong African country in March. He says being “abandoned” for three days in Libreville, Gabon, instead of being delivered to his correct destination, Kinshasa in Congo, caused mental anguish. He’s asking for C$76,000 in general damages and C$10,000 in lost income for the mix-up, which saw him detained by police and placed in confinement for a day because he didn’t have a Gabonese entry visa.

Neither Gabon nor the adjoining Congo are great places to visit in March. The weather is hot, humid and the prolific mosquitoes certainly make their presence felt”.

This little vignette reminded me of my own experience arriving in Libreville, en route to Franceville in the interior of Gabon. I left New York with a one-way ticket to Gabon and $100 USD for travel expenses along the way. Here is how I describe it in "Driving Straight on Crooked Lines", the story of my time with the Legionaries of Christ:

A light rain fell as I descended the stairs from the plane and followed the other passengers across the tarmac, into the lackluster terminal building.
Whilst in line at the immigration desk, my Irish passport open at the ready, I noticed the presence of soldiers in camouflage dress. They stood in pairs, each one carrying an automatic weapon. The knot in my stomach tightened. Logically, I knew I had no reason to be afraid, but the soldiers reminded me of the term ‘trigger-happy.’ The few white people in the group of arriving passengers seemed out of place in the sea of native dark-skinned Africans. I fumbled with my belongings, not wanting to draw attention to myself.
The unfamiliar French language, laced with a dialect I did not understand, made me uncomfortable. Despite my fluency in Spanish and Italian, the thought of having to speak French for the next period in my life did not appeal.
As I waited to hand my papers to the bored-looking official at the immigration table, I worried the guards might lock me up in jail because of some stupid mistake caused by my French mispronunciation.

“Bon jour!” I said as I approached the desk. The unsmiling immigration official didn’t return my greeting. He motioned for my passport, and glanced at it perfunctorily.
“Work visa?”
“No,” I replied carefully, “I do not have a work visa.”
“Show me your return ticket,” he said.
I had arrived in Libreville on a one-way ticket. This seemed to be a problem.
“The Catholic Bishop of Franceville is expecting me.” I hoped this explanation might carry some weight. But the small, thin bureaucrat did not seem at all impressed.
“The Consul at the Gabonese Embassy in Washington D.C. said I don’t need a visa,” I continued, alarm beginning to rise.
 He looked at me blankly.
 “I’m a Catholic priest,” I added lamely.

The slight, impassive official beckoned to a couple of soldiers. He handed them my passport and said something I didn’t understand. The soldiers escorted me to a small office in the arrivals area.
“Sit down here and wait,” they instructed. They locked the door from the outside, and through a glass window, I could see them sit on rickety wooden chairs, machine guns on their laps, chatting to each other. I had no clue what was going to happen to me, and realized my Irish blarney and charm, which had saved my neck in other situations, might not work so well in Gabon.

At the time, I never thought of suing anyone - not that I would have won - but mine was a different mindset. But I can still empathize with the guy in the Economist story being placed in confinement for a day. And, of course, I stayed on in Gabon for substantially longer than he did....

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