Plane change in Abidjan
Trip Start Jan 20, 2008
25Trip End Feb 10, 2008
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Things have gone pretty well so far on the long leg of the trip that starts today, but it's only just started. Kossi arrived at the Ibis this morning at 7:30, as we had agreed, and as soon as I checked out, we drove to the Africa Express hotel very near the airport. This is where the men from Cote d'Ivoire, Benin, Togo and Rwanda had stayed during the conference. I wanted to check out the hotel for future reference. Lomé has worked better for us than Cotonou (Benin). There is no need to rent a hall and the local ladies are happy to prepare the meals. But I wanted to see the hotel. It was quite fine by African standards; I've stayed in much less acceptable places myself on a number of occasions. I had a look around the hotel and visited Moïse Mabout in his room. He was not feeling well. He's had a head and tooth ache for the past few days; I anointed him on the Sabbath for it. I had helped him buy some medicines prescribed for him last night, but he still hadn't slept well, and looked tired. He said he wouldn't make the visit to Momé Hagou that day.
I chatted with the men for half an hour and asked them to extend greetings from me, the other francophone areas and the Home Office, to the brethren in their areas. Several of them will be here another day or two because of flight schedules. The Cameroonians asked if they could leave on Sunday to avoid the road trip back to Cotonou. The cost was about the same to put them up an extra couple of days or pay for the trip to Cotonou, so I agreed. That will also give Moïse more time to recuperate before the trip.
Kossi then drove me the short distance to the airport, where we took our leave of each other, and I went to check in. The TSA lock on my (brand new) suitcase didn't survive the trip to Abidjan, so I can't lock my suitcase. Since this will be a multi-leg journey, I decided to have by suitcase wrapped in plastic film to prevent access to it during transfers. It cost 1000 francs (about $2.50). My suitcase was underweight by several kg since I had unloaded books, CDs, photographs and other fairly weighty items in Lomé. I checked in without a problem but as I left the counter the agent saw that I had both my computer roller bag and a small shoulder bag (for cameras and things I can't check. "Ah we must weigh the carryon bags" she told me seriously. I placed them on the scale. "Over 15 kg!, they are too heavy, you cannot take all that in the cabin" she scolded. I replied that I took them both in the cabin all the time: on Delta, American, Air France, Air Senegal, Kenya Airways, Cameroon Airlines etc, and that it always worked just fine. "Ah non" she continued, "I cannot let you on the plane with such heavy hand baggage. Just imagine what would happen if everyone did that!" I responded by asking: "What if I weighed 5kg more, would that be a problem?" "That's different" she assured me, looking down and shuffling some papers.
Another woman came over and explained that she was the ground chief. She controlled the flight, and she couldn't let me board with such heavy hand baggage. I showed her the computer and the other contents of the two carryon bags, there was very little beyond the computer equipment, cameras, emergency toiletries, my Bible, and two paperbacks. I explained that I did this frequently, and that it had always worked just fine. "Far be it from me to irk you" she began. I bit my tongue. She finished "but I cannot allow this." She showed me a plastic sign. "You are allowed 5 kg" (about 12 pounds) she informed me. I replied that my computer, still and video camera weighed about that all by themselves without any cases at all. My attempts at negotiation did no good.
"I will call your suitcase back and you will lighten your carryon as much as you can" she instructed. I mentioned that it was already wrapped in plastic. "I will call your suitcase back and you will lighten your carryon as much as you can" she repeated. How much do I need to lighten it?" I asked. "As much as you can" was the repetitive, vague reply.
I waited 15 minutes while someone went to retrieve my suitcase. When it arrived I ripped the plastic off, and opened the case. I went through my hand luggage, moved a paperback and a few things I could do without into the big suitcase. I sometimes wear a Kenyan safari vest when I fly in Africa; the many pockets are useful for carrying and dissimulating things. While the two agents were busy with other clients, I really took advantage of my vest: I put the other paperback (Herodotus' History, 700 pages) in a pocket, earphones, a glasses case, my mp3 player, cell phone, peripherals for the laptop, toiletries; I moved as many things as I could into increasingly bulging vest pockets, until I imagined that I looked something like a khaki Michelin man.
I closed the suitcase, and fiddled with the broken TSA lock to give the impression it worked, and put the hand luggage back on the scale, the weight had come down several kg, most of which I was now wearing. With an expression that indicated she was bearing a great weight of injustice, she sniffed and looked away, indicating I had reached a barely acceptable carryon weight, but only by her grace. I asked twice, to make sure there wouldn't be any further trouble, and she finally looked at me and nodded. I guess she couldn't bring herself to audibly say it was OK. My suitcase went onto the belt sans plastic. Oh well.
As soon as I got out of the check-in area, around the corner and out of sight, I stopped and emptied the contents of my vest pockets back into the carryon bags where everything had been at the start. Vive l'Afrique!
In my experience in Africa, the more repressive the government, the more officials check your passport when arriving and leaving. My passport and boarding pass were checked once at the door to the airport, once a few steps inside at the first security table, and once again as I left the check-in area. I hadn't filled in my middle name on the exit form; I was made to do so. Ten steps forward and I arrived at the official immigration desk where my visa was checked and my passport and boarding pass were stamped. Two steps past the desk, a plain clothes official appeared and required me to produce them again. Twenty more steps, at the security checkpoint, another officer requires them. I place my bags on the belt, along with vest, shoes, belt, and all pockets' contents. The agent insists firmly that I take my eyeglasses off and put them in the bin too. Once through the checkpoint as I was putting myself back together, one last agent wants to see my papers. Seven verifications in one very small airport. Finally I reach the departure lounge.
The plane on which we would travel arrived on time from Libreville. We began boarding very close to on time. The aircraft was a big Airbus 320. It was only about 20% full. My extra few pounds of carryon were obviously going to create a great security risk!
The smooth flight to Abidjan was an hour long. As I deplane and go down the stairway to the immigration area, agents are waiting to check passports and onward tickets. The man in front of me looks Chinese but has a French passport. The agent asks him in French if he is French. The Chinese-looking man does not understand the question. The agent tells him in French to stand aside to wait for further verification; when he sees he has not been understood he repeats the instructions in English. The man moves to the waiting area. My turn. When the agent sees the cover of the American passport, he waves me through without even looking at me. I angle to the right, to the transit desks. "Where are you going?" the agent asks in French. When I tell her "Nairobi", she replies "Kenya Airways, go upstairs." I have only checked my suitcase from Lomé to Abidjan to reduce the chance of it getting lost during a transfer. When I explain this, she says, "Go get it and come back here."
So I walk over the immigration counter, fifty feet farther along on the left side of the hall, and show my onward ticket, explaining that I have been instructed to pick up my suitcase and come back through this way. "Leave your passport here" the agent instructs "you will pick it up again when you come back through." I slip my passport under the glass partition. As I start walking away, I hear several urgent voices: "Monsieur!" I've been called back. The agent smiles and hands me back my passport. "You are American," she says, "you can keep your passport." I thank her with a smile, and as I turn quickly to go the luggage carrousels, I almost run over another immigration agent who has walked right up next to me. "Attendez, attendez, stop!" he says, as if I'm trying to make a run for it. But as soon as he sees the cover, he waves me on too. I guess most Americans who come to West Africa don't try to pull any fast ones on the officials.
The suitcase arrived just fine and I wheeled it back to the transit counter. "You can't check in on Kenya until 16:00" the agent tells me. "Do I wait here?" I asked. "Or you can go upstairs to the restaurant" replied the agent. That is definitely better that the bare no-man's-land of the arrival area, I'd already been stuck there for hours on past trips, with no option of going anywhere else.
Upstairs, I had a French coffee (espresso) at the end of my light lunch, and noticed an interesting coincidence. For some reason they're importing French sugar here (Africa is full of cane fields and refineries), and the packet that came with the coffee was from the Erstein sugar refinery, about twenty miles south of Strasburg in Alsace. The refinery is located five or six miles down road from the village where we lived for six years when I was working in that region. We passed the refinery almost every time we drove to town. It's a small world sometimes....
Now I'm waiting until 4:00 to go back downstairs to check in, then four more hours until the flight leaves for Nairobi.