A Horse With No Name

It's all about who you know

The avenue was wide and dusty, with piles of sand stacked against the curb in elaborate wind-swept patterns. They reminded me that I needed to take my bike for a wash, because it had been red and sandy for days now, and especially the chain needed some grease. Come to think of it, it might also be a good idea to have the oil changed after two thousand miles of this fine yellow dust. Lighting poles interspersed with piles of rubbish lined the median, their rusty metal bases decorated with flower patterns and, more recently, graffiti. The painted lines on the lanes had mostly faded and in any case were disregarded, every vehicle using whatever space was deemed appropriate except for the rightmost part which was reserved for the many motorcycle taxis, donkeys, and bicycles. Stalls consisting of little more than stacked boxes and wooden planks displayed fruit, eggs and meat, the latter crawling with flies. Cooking fires burned away from the road and old men drank coffee and played dominoes on rickety plastic garden furniture. They looked up in mild surprise and waved as I walked by, unused to seeing foreigners alone, strolling along this way.

As I walked along for a good thirty minutes the traffic gradually grew quieter. Occasionally taxi drivers would slow down and holler at me, and although we spoke a common language my understanding of it was so rudimentary, and their pronunciation so garbled, that it was mostly from their gestures that I understood what they were saying. "Come with me white man, I will take you back to your hotel!"

Near the corner of an intersection a giant bug lay squashed on the pavement, a squirming trail of ants carrying bits and pieces of it back to the bushes. Bushes, a rather generous term to describe the dusty, thorny skeleton that remained, plastic trash sticking to it on all sides like a campsite after a tornado. A blue-and-white pickup truck pulled over next to me and the police officer on the front seat leaned out and motioned for me to come closer. “Where are you going my man? This is not a good place to be”. I pointed down the road, muttering “Embassy”, and his expression changed from surprised concern to mild annoyance “Alright friend, but take a taxi next time.. it can be dangerous for you! This is Africa!”.

I passed a large abandoned building with a gallery of columns out front, a kitschy miniature Acropolis with an oddly out of place tin roof. A group of boys squatted in the shade under the canopy and grinned at me. They had been collecting scrap metal and appeared to be sorting their finds, neat piles of squashed soda cans, bottle caps, foil, and bits of rebar on the ground in front of them.

A little further on down the avenue I found what I was looking for, a large white office building in distinctly better shape than the surrounding structures. A little gatehouse guarded the entrance to the walled parking lot, and the guard inside motioned for me to enter. A man in blue coveralls was washing cars in the courtyard and greeted me enthusiastically. A line of country flags set in colourful flower beds indicated that I had indeed found the right place to apply for my next visa.

“You must fill out this form”. The lady at the front desk handed me a clipboard. She wore a little country pin on her immaculate red dress. “When you are finished, you must pay one-hundred-and-twenty dollars US and submit four passport sized photos. It may take up to two weeks. The fee is non-refundable, and a visa is not guaranteed”. Her monotone voice and accent-less English betrayed the fact that she had to repeat these lines dozens of times a day, however for the moment I was the only person in the lobby. I sat down next to a vending machine whose mechanism was whirring softly, while an overhead fan provided some much-needed fresh air. After completing the form I returned it to the lady along with the money, my passport, and the little envelope with spare photos I carried for occasions like this. She carefully inspected the form and then told me to wait while she disappeared in the office behind her, so I sat down again and took out a book and some bananas. Even though foreign embassies were usually uncorrupted and at least somewhat organized places, bringing your own entertainment and food as a confident display of “I know this may take a while” was always a good idea.

Travel in Africa had quickly taught me that it pays to never be in a hurry – or at the very least, to never seem to be in a hurry. When you seem to be in a hurry, police and customs officers suddenly become more scrutinous when examining your luggage, essentially trying to spell out that you can make things go faster with the right amount of money. It wouldn’t even be considered corruption in most places, because if Africans are good at one thing, it is waiting. Waiting for the bus that comes once a day, but no-one ever knows when exactly. Waiting in line for the border post that opens as soon as the chief official wakes from his nap – because it would be rude to disturb him, of course. Waiting at the police station to file a report – which in a lot of places wouldn’t even be considered worth the effort, unless you knew one of the officers personally. As a white person in most African countries you are supposed to be rich, and as a white person in a hurry, it is no more than reasonable for the customs official, who earns less in a month than you do in a day, to expect you to pay a little to ease the waiting. If however you are very obviously not in a hurry, then there is no need to make a show out of delaying you, since there is no money to be made.

That is not to say that corruption in Africa is omnipresent, and from time to time I had been surprised by the honesty, sometimes bordering on innocence, of the people I came across. Sitting in the waiting room I was reminded of the Mauritanian police officer who had stopped me on the road between the Moroccan border and Nouakchott. Riding down a long stretch of desert road with no signs of life around I had suddenly come across a roadblock with a "STOP" sign. On the left side of the roadblock stood two concrete buildings, husks without doors or windows, abandoned halfway through construction. On the right side just behind the roadblock sat a rusty caravan propped up on piles of bricks, but there were no vehicles around, and it appeared to be abandoned. I navigated the concrete blocks on the road and was about to accelerate down the road when a short, ragged looking man came running towards the road out of nowhere, a rusty AK-47 bouncing on his back, howling at me to stop. “Arrêt!, Arrêt!”. I slowed down and pulled over, peering back at him through my mirror. He was wearing a faded green uniform and beret. Police or bandit? He was waving his rifle in the air and gesturing at me to turn around, and I figured that while he had the gun it might be a safe idea to do what he asked. I turned around and rode the hundred or so meters back, parking next to the caravan. He set his rifle down in the dirt outside and motioned for me to enter. Inside was a stack of dirty mattresses and a small table with bottles of water and a pile of paperwork. I realized that he had probably been resting and had been caught by surprise, woken up by the noise.

He produced a large ledger from under all the papers and asked for my passport and insurance papers. He put down my details, writing in deliberate longhand using a pencil. When he was finished, he returned my documents and asked something in French, while making an odd gesture towards his mouth. I assumed he was asking for money so I shrugged and looked at him with feigned puzzlement. He put his hand on my arm as if to stop me and made the gesture again, pointing at his mouth. Only then did I notice that his lips were covered in sores, perhaps from herpes or some other kind of infection, and I suddenly understood what he wanted. I motioned for him to wait and walked over to the bike, and after some digging around in my tank bag, produced a stick of labello. He accepted it as if it was the holy grail, immediately applying some to his battered lips. He tried to hand it back to me, so I laughed and put the stick in his chest pocket. From then on he was all smiles and talk, but I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying. He shook my hand several times and when he finally let me depart I saw him standing at the roadside, rifle on his back, waving at me, before walking back to his caravan with the sort of stride that betrayed great cheer and confidence.

The vending machine suddenly changed the pitch of its whirring, and after a few minutes the lady returned with a copy of the form, as well as a receipt for the money and the envelope with the remaining pictures. Well-organized indeed, I thought, as I put it all away in my bag. “Shall I call a taxi to take you back into town?”, she asked, while motioning towards the telephone on the counter. “No thank you, I will walk. Would it be OK if I checked in tomorrow to see if the visa is ready?”

“Sure, if you want. But it will take a lot longer”

After leaving the embassy I walked back down the same street I had come. It was just after eleven and the heat was building already. I stopped at one of the roadside stalls and bought a coconut. The hawker picked one from the pile on his cart and using a large machete skilfully removed the flesh, then opened a little tab at the top and handed it to me with a straw. The juice was cool and delicious, and right after leaving the stall a little boy of no more than 5, who had been sitting under the cart, started following me down the street. He was wearing nothing but shorts and I wasn’t quite sure what he wanted, until after a minute or so the coconut was empty, and he begged for me to hand it to him. He ran back to the stall where the hawker chopped it in pieces, after which the kid sat down again and started munching on the juicy flesh. One man’s trash is another’s man’s treasure.

I met up with James at a café downtown just after 12. He was a cheerful Londoner who had spent his whole life being dragged from one country to another by his diplomat parents. Only about ten years older than I was, he could list the few countries of the world where he hadn’t yet been off the top of his head. I had encountered him on my first night in town on the roof terrace of our hostel, where he sat smoking hashish and reading an ancient volume of Moby Dick. He had been in town for a few weeks already and still hadn’t gotten bored of the sandy dust that seemed to cover everything. We had talked for a bit, before he had invited me to join him on his daily quests to find worthwhile places to eat and drink.

“This place here is supposed to have the best shishkebabs in the whole country” he explained as I sat down. The courtyard was thoughtfully decorated, elaborately carved wooden panelling shielding it from street view, with small palm trees in large red pots around the columns of the arcade. We ordered coffee and the famous shish kebabs. The waiter was dressed like Zero Mustafa, the lobby boy from The Grand Budapest Hotel, wearing a fading purple jacket with golden buttons. He brought us a metal contraption which was revealed to be a stand for a jug of icy water, into which he plunked several large slices of orange and lemon. On his second trip he carried a large French Press coffee maker and a small hourglass and gestured politely. “If the gentlemen wish for smooth coffee, they should press down when the hourglass finishes. If they wish for strong coffee, they should turn over the hourglass once more before doing so”. We nodded politely, and James turned to me with a mischievous smile.

While we sipped alternately hot coffee and cold water, I told James about my experience at the embassy earlier today. “They have a good reputation”, he said, but then added to my dismay, “But don’t be surprised if it takes a week. They like to do things by the book. Remember the form asked you for a reference from their home country? Well the guy whose info I gave you lives near the capital and I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually called him to come to the immigration office to verify the story. He’s done that before, so it won’t be a problem, but be sure to pay him a visit when you get there. He’ll appreciate a few beers in return”. The man in question, I learned, was a retired schoolteacher who now ran a little business as liaison for several NGO’s that wanted to work in the region, so he knew his way around government offices. His son had been James’ parent’s gardener more than a decade ago, and he kept in touch for old times sake, and to hustle visa references for fellow travellers.

I wasn’t looking forward to being stuck here for a week or more, so I made a mental note to later that day browse through the Lonely Planet for interesting things to see. I also needed to find a place that sold English books because the current one I was carrying was almost through. “How is the bike holding up?”, James asked. “I’ve seen them around here, the Transalp, along with some Dominators, but most people nowadays buy the 125cc Indians. One of those new is cheaper than a second-hand big bike”. The streets were indeed full of these imported Indian manufactured motorcycles, styled after the Japanese cruisers of the 70s and 80s, but with tiny little engines. Which was fine for the locals, because it meant they were lightweight, easy to fix, and ridiculously fuel-efficient. And versatile, since seeing them carrying 3 or more people along with baskets full of produce or even animals was the rule rather than the exception. I took a sip of coffee. “It’s doing pretty well, given the circumstances. A bit heavy perhaps, for the road conditions here, but reliable, and powerful in the low end”.

The Honda Transalp is a design from the mid-80s, one of the first motorcycles to be labelled all road, meant to be ridden both on paved roads and gravel. Too heavy for real off-road work and slow relative to the competition it had nonetheless been a huge success for Honda, with the design virtually unchanged for the first fifteen years of production. Its weight and massive crash bars meant that it was sturdy, not easily damaged, and it would carry whatever luggage you could strap to it. The V-twin engine had good torque at low speeds which helped hauling said luggage, and its low power meant that it didn’t easily overheat even under the most stressful conditions. The Transalp was a tank, the Nokia of motorcycles. Slow and ugly, but somewhat comfortable but basic, highly reliable and extremely versatile. While the production run of the first models ended in 2000, their omnipresence throughout Europe remains a testament to their durability.

“Back in 2015 I made it to Dakar on my old Transalp. I had wanted to push on to at least Ghana but there had just been a coup d’état in Burkina Faso and there was trouble in Mali also, with the French army intervening on the government’s behalf. So I was stuck in Dakar for two weeks, trying to figure out what to do”.

“When I get back to London I should get my license and buy me a big bike too”, James mused, while the waiter set down two plates of mouth-watering shish kebabs surrounded by a picture-perfect ensemble of chopped tomatoes, avocados, and fried potatoes. “You know what, I have a great visa story for you, while we eat”.

“When I was 21, my father was working in Angola, while I was attending university in Manchester. My brother and I made plans to visit him over the summer. We wanted to buy a cheap car in Luanda, and drive it all the way back to London”, James began. I was happily munching away at the shishkebabs and had to chuckle at the thought of two English lads making their way across a dozen countries and by five thousand miles of African coastline as a kind of summer getaway. “Finding a car and insurance was the easy part, I think we spent less than two thousand pounds altogether for the preparations. Got us an ancient Jeep Wrangler with 200k on the odo, but it ran great. We got most of the paperwork sorted but getting a Nigeria visa was going to be the difficult part. At that time you couldn’t really get one without a specific request from a company operating in Nigeria, and even then it wasn’t guaranteed. But if worst came to worst, we could always turn around and come back to Luanda, at least that was the idea”.

He chugged his water glass and stabbed at the skewer on his plate. It was goat meat, well-seasoned but chewy. After a short pause and a mouthful he continued. “First we went to the Nigerian embassy in Luanda, and they just laughed at us. You’re never getting to Nigeria they said, your car will break down, you’ll get lost, that sort of thing. In retrospect I can’t blame them, two English guys in their early 20s, skinny and sunburnt.. They wouldn’t even give us the forms, they just sent us away!”.

“So we loaded up the Wrangler with camping gear, food, water, a spare battery and some tools, and set off towards Kinshasa, determined to try our luck there. It took us almost a week to get there, that’s how terrible the roads were. Some days we only managed to go a hundred miles, and we were ripped off badly for petrol once, paying almost four pounds a litre. But we had no choice, there was nothing else around. Eventually we made it to Kinshasa. It’s filthy, it’s busy, you know the drill. First stop we make on the outskirts of the city we get swarmed by hustlers trying to buy our car or wanting to help us find a hotel – but we had a place to stay, with a friend of my father”.

“The next morning, we get to the Nigerian Embassy with our passports and everything, and this time the reception is quite nice. Pay here, fill out all of this, come back in two hours. TWO HOURS? There was no mention of a reference or anything needed, we could hardly believe it. We went to a café on the corner and just sat there until the time was up. Walked back inside, talked to the same lady, she said, “wait a minute”. Comes back with the paperwork. Sorry, your visa has been denied”.

He laughed out loud. “That was 250 dollars down the drain, and we were pissed. But there was nothing we could do. They’re not allowed to discuss the reasons. Our host suggested we try it in Cameroon, so on we went. First back towards the coast and then north. It’s very green there, gorgeous, but the rainy season screwed up the roads badly and we got stuck more than once. Lovely people though, at one point half a village came out to help us dislodge the car using bits of wood and furniture. Good times”.

“The rest of the trip went great, I mean, we had a blast. Got mugged, got sick, got stalked by a bunch of hookers in Gabon who wouldn’t leave us alone till we bought them drinks. But we did eventually get the Nigeria visa, in Cameroon. Ended up costing us another 500 quid, too. But we got it”. “Another 500?” I asked with a huge grin. “Yup, and here’s how it went down. We get to the embassy in Yaoundé, and get the same reception as in Kinshasa. Clean, nice, fill out this, pay here, etc. But this time we’re more careful, we talk to the guy at the desk for a while first. Is there any chance of getting a visa at all? Difficult, he says, but not impossible. Do we have any references inside Nigeria? So we give him the details of some acquaintances of our parents and pretend we’re going to visit them for business. Might not have looked very convincing, but hey. He claims it could be OK, and we fill out all the forms again and pay another 125 dollars each. Come back tomorrow the guy says, so we do. So we show up the next morning, bam, visa rejected.

At this point my brother wants to give up and just head back to Angola, so we call dad and explain the problem. He tells us to try with the British embassy, see if they have any ideas. We end up having tea with the British High Commissioner for Cameroon the next day and explain our predicament to him. He’s like, sure, I’ve heard about this kind of difficulty, but there’s not much I can do for you. But are you religious by any chance? Turns out they go to the same church as the Nigerian Ambassador and his wife. It’s Thursday, so we spend two days in this town hating every minute of it, while my brother just wants to give up and go home, but there we are, Sunday morning, in church. The only white faces there along with the British High Commissioner and his wife, who after the service introduces us to some of the people including the Nigerian ambassador. Older guy, heavy set, but friendly. We broach the subject carefully. We want to visit your beautiful country, we’re on a long journey, et cetera. He nods with sympathy and tells us, come by my office tomorrow at 9, and we can discuss this”.

“So, off we go the next morning, and find the same guy behind the counter who rejected our visa last week. We explain that we have an appointment with the ambassador which he doesn’t believe of course, but after verifying the story he walks us to the office. Fancy office, wooden panelling, giant desk, the place looked almost Victorian. Which was fitting, because there was a portrait of Queen Elisabeth on the wall behind the guy. We talk Britain, football, and politics for far too long and eventually the visa comes up. He calls downstairs and requests our paperwork from last week. Same guy again, runs up and brings the folder. Ambassador dons his reading glasses, looks it over for a minute and says ‘Well that’s not a problem. Give these boys a visa’”.

“We head downstairs again and get new forms to fill out. They can’t reuse the ones from last week because the dates would be all wrong, of course. Had to pay again, too, but we walked out of there with a single-entry visa for Nigeria, valid for thirty days. We got wasted that night, obviously, and it turns out that it’s irrelevant who you are; it’s all about who you know”.

Followed chronologically by Memories of a zoo