Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Let me tell you how NOT to travel in west africa





After 11 months in Guinea-Bissau I finally made plans to visit another west african country. My final destination was Mauritania, but in order to get there I would have to spend a day coming and going in Dakar.  I wasn’t so mad about that. One vacation and 2 countries is a great combination!

So why Mauritania you might ask? In all honesty, I probably never would have thought of coming to Mauritania.  It’s a 99% Muslim country that is completely desert. I was going to Mauritania because for the past 2 years my dad has been back and forth between the US and Mauritania to studying Islam and Arabic.

In the US my dad is an Iman, a Muslim spiritual leader, and he came to Noakchott to strengthen and profound his knowledge of Islam. I wondered why he had chosen to study in Mauritania as opposed to other Muslim countries in the Middle East. To my surprise, Mauritania is one of, if not the only place in the world where Islam is in its 'purest' form.  What does that mean? In most Muslim countries the Islam is not the true form of Islam because it has been corrupted by cultural influence, oil money, ‘western’ ideas, and personal greed.  Because Mauritania is a desert, relatively undeveloped, and receives very few foreigners, Islam has stayed (mostly) intact for the time islam was spread in 

I don’t know when I’ll be back in the US, thus I didn’t know when the next time I’d see him would be, so I decided to make the trip since we weren’t so far away from each other ( 1 hour plane ride to Dakar from Bissau and 1 hour from Dakar to Mauritania)

So this was the plan, however execution of that plan was a lot more difficult then I ever could have imagined, mostly due to Senegal Airlines incompetency. Let me explain:

Senegal Airlines essentially has a monopoly on air traffic coming in and out of Guinea Bissau.  There is TAP from Portugal and Air Morocco that fly in, but Dakar is an international hub, so if you are going anywhere besides Portugal and Morocco you have to stop in Dakar first and then catch your connecting flight to whereever else you are going.  Because they have no competition, they have no need to perform to the costumers expectation. What you get then, is a lot of delayed and canceled flights coming to and from Bissau.

My flight was at noon. So I arrived at the airport at 10 am to check-in, only to find out the check-in time was moved to 1 pm. No problem, I went to work for a couple hours and then was back at the airport by 1.  After checking in, other passengers and I waited for what we told was our 3 o’clock flight. But 3 o’clock came and went and when we asked, no one had any information for us other then ‘the plane is coming’.

I made a friend while waiting and so we talked and he told me about his business ventures in Senegal and Bissau. He had direct contact with someone who worked at Senegal Airlines and when he called them at 5pm they told him the flight would now be at 10 pm. 

We left the airport and I went home to sleep, eat, and hang out with my neighbor since it was her birthday.  I got a ride to the airport at 9 and found my seat with others again waiting for our phantom plane to arrive. I asked the guy sitting closest to me whether he had heard anything about the flight and he said no.  20 minutes later this guy, whose name is Mohammed, came and found me outside of the Airport to let me know that they were not sending a medium sized plane as planned, but rather a small 17 seater plane.   Meaning there were 17 people who were going to Dakar and there most certainly were more then 17 of us waiting for said plane. 

I ran in the airport and stayed relatively close to this guy since he seemed to know what was going on. If I had known we would wait another 3 hours for the plane to show up,  I wouldn’t have been in such a rush. At 1:30 am the plane finally showed up, but others had heard the news too about the 17 seats on the plane, so everyone got in the boarding line instantly.

Now what happened next has everything to do with the inability of the people who worked at the airport to get organized.   In almost any other country I’m sure, or at least in the US, if there aren’t enough seats, they will look though the passengers itineraries and decide who would stay behind (based on final destinations and connecting flights, and make sure that they were reasonable compensated for their time. In doing so the other passengers wouldn’t feel like their seat on the plane was threatened, thus causing irrational behavior, which is exactly the outcome of this situation. 

As we all stood at the gate, an attendant from the airport summoned the ‘VIP’ people to come and board the plane. Everyone seemed to think they were VIP because the entire group began to follow the VIP through the check-in gate. Other airport attendees had to come and stop everyone.  We were surrounded and they were trying to herd us back in line behind the gate.

We got back to the gate and of course no one wanted to go to the spot they were in originally, which led to more arguments and pushing. When they finally began to check tickets, they were supposed to allow only 17 people through the gate due to the capacity of the plane. But I could tell it was going to be more chaos because the guy checking tickets was not counting the tickets. 18 of us ended up on the shuttle that was to take us to the plane. When the attendant came  and said there were too many people on the shuttle and that someone needed to get off, everyone looked at everyone else with a “ your crazy to think im getting off” face. We had all been waiting 14 hours for this flight. There was no way anyone was going to give up their seat. 

The attendant  tried speaking with some people, but it was to no avail, so he sent the shuttle to the plane anyways. As soon as the shuttle stopped everyone ran for  the small step ladder to get on the plane. It was life or death and everyone was pushing, shoving, and elbowing each other trying to get on the step ladder to board the  plane.

It's been a while since I've seen paved roads and big buildings (Bank)
The flight attendant came out of the plane to see what all the hustle and bustle was about, she immediatley began yelling for the pilot. He came out of the cabin and began yelling “ Stop! Stop! What’s going on?!’’  Myself and maybe 4 others understood him because he was speaking in English.  Everyone else continued pushing and shoving. I found this extremely entertaining. 

“Who speaks English?! Who can tell me what’s going on?!”  He asked.  I replied from behind the mosh pit, “ There are 18 of us and 17 seats on the plane, that’s the problem”.  He was confused as to why this hadn’t be handled before we all got to the plane. I explained that we had numbers on the back of our tickets and he should just take number 1-17. He didn't seem to think this was a good idea, so without delay more fighting broke out. 

Everyone on the left side starting pushing together and all of us on the right side were getting pushed into the planes propeller. Security guards began running to the scene and tried to get people to stop, yelling that this was a safety hazard and someone could get hurt!

Senegalese local transport, the Guinea-Bissau equivilant
In the back and forth of the mosh pit I managed to sneak up close to the ladder. With the help of one of the friends who blocked the crowd as I pushed through to where an airport security guard was blocking the step ladder with his body. I politely asked if I could pass and he let me through and my friend slipped on behind me.

The pilot had been yelling the entire time and once I made it on the ladder he said no one was getting on until everyone was in a line. I turned around while climbing the ladder and translated what he was saying in hopes that maybe folks would get it together if they could actually understand what he was saying.  Then I entered the plane and found my seat.

Unlucky number 18 was an Indian man who had stayed at the airport the entire 14 hours.  He put up quite a protest. Everyone felt bad, but no one was willing to give up their seat.  Once on the plane everyone was clam and most people fell asleep before the plane even took off!

 I arrived in Dakar at 3 o’clock in the morning and my friend Danny (God bless his soul) met me at the airport.  He lives in a neighborhood called Medina, so we caught a cab there and I slept like a rock! 

View of the ocean just outside of down-town Dakar
The next day we were out the door by noon to explore Dakar. At first I was jazzed by what I saw, it was like Guinea Bissau but much more developed. The beaches are beautiful and the construction is modern.  I was thrilled to be a in a place that had paved roads, electricity, running water, and the likes.

 But once we got to downtown my sentiment started to change.  I felt like I had been transported to France or Portugal.  And I began to wonder how it is that these neighboring countries are so different?!  What happened that Bissau got left so far behind? People who have never left Bissau have no idea how much better it can be, the injustice is heart breaking and left me speechless for the rest of our journey.

 I went to check-in to my flight to Mauritania at 5pm that afternoon and again, the flight time had been moved to 11:30pm. Gooooo Figure!! I told the flight attendant to move my flight back a couple of days ( for free since these flight delays seems to be perpetual)  so that I could spend more time exploring Dakar after my visit to Mauritania. 

Finally At 1:00 am the plane showed up, we took our flight, and I arrived safely in Noakchott at 3 am.