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February 14, 2013 / samwilson60

Gabon or bust

First thing the next morning, the power was on and our precious invitations to Gabon were ready and waiting (thank you, Simon!). We had everything printed and photocopied, and in Sam’s case even managed a shower and a shave, before rocking up at the embassy at five to nine – so far so good. Much to both ladies’ dismay, we insisted on filling out new forms and resubmitting our full applications – as we fruitlessly explained, our Cameroon visas expire at the end of the week so we really can’t afford any more refusals, however temporary. With as many assurances as we could get but no clear collection time/date, we accepted to leave on the promise of a phone call (well aware of how well that had worked the last time). As predicted, there was no call and we found ourselves, once again, banging on the gates at 3pm. We waited a painfully long time just to get the same old platitudes from the lady lowest in command – it was all in the system, all that was left was for the ambassador to add his stamp, obviously that would take until 3pm the following day. We nodded politely and left graciously, consoling ourselves with the fact that we hadn’t been rejected again yet, we think.

Yet another day of waiting was put to pretty good use – check out the routes page on the blog, watch this space for evidence of Sam’s awesome woodwork and, if you’re Mum, rest assured we haven’t forgotten your birthday. As always though, the fun stopped at 3pm precisely, when we rocked up at the Gabonese embassy for the sixth time in a week and a half. There was already a waiting room full of people, the only obvious silver lining being that they’ve reintroduced the waiting room system, almost certainly after some rather animated scenes on the street if last week was anything to go by. Still unsure whether we had visas or not, we knew better than to ask, having not got a straight word out of anyone except the ambassador himself on any other visit.

Two full hours later, however, even we were getting a little agitated. Apparently all was well, we – and the room full of increasingly animated others – just had to wait for the big man to get back from a meeting so that he could put the final stamp on the passports (all that had been missing 24 hours previously). There were various altercations going on all around, primarily involving the bitch woman shouting through her window at anyone foolish enough to question the professionalism of the whole shebang, but we opted to sit quietly in the corner, rediscovering the joys of the snake game on the old mobile phone. At some point the gate opened for the ambassadorial vehicle and at some point later still the lady appeared with our passports. “You have the visa,” she said, “but the ambassador needs to see you still.” Our hearts sank – we had considered the option of having to stay here all night, or even having to return in the morning; it was entirely possible, for whatever reason, that our visas had been rejected again and we’d have to try to bypass Gabon entirely; we had certainly no considered the option of getting the visas three hours late and then being summoned by the big chief upstairs.

Obediently, we complied and were greeted as warmly as ever by the receptionist upstairs. She clearly didn’t see why we should have an audience with the ambassador either, but Madame Miriam (the friendlier but infinitely less competent of the two ladies downstairs) ushered us in and we sat waiting for the punch line.

The heavily abridged version is that, despite our initial uncertainties, the ambassador had definitely warmed to us. To the extent that he’d decided, when he realised he couldn’t bypass the system and apparently after a few family heart to hearts about us, that his daughter in Libreville could invite us herself. Clearly we’d managed to get our own invites but he thought we might still like to meet said daughter at least (we’re around the same age so would clearly get along swimmingly). She works in cinema (selected for the Ouaga film festival later this month) so knows lots of big names (Lee White, anyone?) and obviously what she wants more than ever is to meet a couple of smelly overlanders her dad almost failed to issue visas too at all. The other part of us was genuinely, speechlessly, touched by the offer, but we’d been here over three hours already just today so when he started phoning his daughter and her fiancé in case they wanted a chat there and then, we were very relieved no one picked up.

The ambassador wasn’t giving us quite that easily, and started calling the wife so that she could say hello. As he told us how close to the embassy they lived, we started properly squirming, wary that a very generous but equally unnecessary dinner invite might be on its way. When he got no answer from the wife or their security guard, we started making polite noises about really needing to get organised for our imminent border crossing. The message seemed to get across and within the next 15 minutes we were thanking and well-wishing and saying goodbye, clutching the phone numbers of all the family in Gabon, his own business card and his direct mobile number – in case of any problems en route. The ambassador is apparently good friends with the mayor of first town we’ll enter in Gabon and the governor of the entire district, so if anyone gives us any bother we have express instructions to brandish his name about and call on him at will.

As uncomfortable and surreal as we found this whole situation, our anger at the Gabonese embassy was long forgotten and we were well aware of the generosity the ambassador was showing us. We were in fits of laughter all the way back to camp but above all excited and relieved that we could finally continue our travels. Cameroon is high on the list, maybe even top, of the places we want to come back to, but right now we’re desperate to move on.

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One Comment

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  1. leelee / Feb 14 2013 10:19 am

    yaaaaay! you lot do seem to spend an inordinate time in embassies during your crossing of a continent. african beurocracy huh? i reckon you can count yourself lucky you won’t have to deal with the South African Department of Home Affairs though…

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