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Trying to get to Cameroon from Nigeria

Posted by Admin on May 15th, 2010 and filed under Featured, Sports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Anjali Nayar| 15 May 2010 | CBC|

Cameroon Nigeria Border

Calabar, Nigeria – There’s something very gratifying about just picking something off a menu at random in a new country.

I’d heard both great and terrible things about Nigerian food, so I figured I should indulge. Edikang Ikong and Semovita. That should do the trick, I thought.

It turned out to be some sort of pumpkin leaf soup accompanied by a stiff porridge made from wheat semolina. I learned quickly that Nigerian soups are full of surprises. As you wade in with your hand, you are never quite sure what you will pull out: a full crayfish, chunks of chicken or smoked fish. In my Edikang Ikong I found a strange rubbery square that popped out between my fingers and skidded across the table. When I finally nabbed it and took I bite, it crackled. Ah, good old fatty cow skin.

It was my first meal in a while; making my way to Cameroon was more complicated than I expected. The Cameroonian consulate in Lagos was shut because the consular conveniently went on vacation. I tried to call first, but listed embassy phone numbers and addresses are rarely up-to-date in this part of the world. You basically have to troll around until you find someone who knows the place.

I was told that to get a visa I would have to fly to Calabar, which was once a major port in the Atlantic slave trade. The city is in the south-eastern part of the country, and a four-hour boat ride away from the Cameroonian border. But of course, I couldn’t book the ticket online with a Visa card.

Hoping to skip a bit of the run-around, I decided to wing and showed up at the airport listed by the airline company online. Naturally it was the wrong airport.

A few taxi rides later, I found the place, deflated my ball (with the inner ink tube of a ball-point pen) and scrambled through security. A guy in a flashy suit and pointy cowboy shoes behind me got on board with a slew of needles and other pointy objects, binoculars around his neck.

“I’m a famous pastor,” he stated, as if it was some sort of diplomatic passport.

Without further ado, he was welcomed on-board: “welcome pastor, thank you pastor.”

Very reassuring.

Anjali’s trip across Africa

viewAnjali Nayar – Destination: South Africa

A few hours later in Calabar, I had dropped my passport off for a visa. A very nice official said he would make sure I got it back the same day as long as I supported the Cameroonian national side, The Indomitable Lions, during the World Cup.

“Of course,” I assured him.

Now, I just needed to find a boat.

I jumped in a shared taxi to the beach. The taxi driver had on bug-eye sunglasses and an orange African print shirt emblazoned with the face of his state governor. He was in a heated argument with a woman in the back seat, who didn’t have change for her fare (around 35 cents). To prevent the driver from driving off with her 500 Naira bill (around $3.50), the woman grabbed my bag as collateral. Jerry fought back with a slew of words in pigeon English so loud that the Nigerian hip hop music playing over the radio seemed like an undertone.

“What’s your name?” I asked, during a break in his rant.

“Jerry,” he answered abruptly.

I immediately liked him.

We sped through the wide colonial roads of Calabar (or Calamari, as my father referred to it on the phone) in Jerry’s broken-down blue cab with a faded Manchester United sticker on the windshield.

At the beach, Jerry jumped out of the car and led me through the masses of testosterone. The port was filled with a bunch of gruff, minimally-clothed men, resting after a day of hard manual labour.

It’s amazing how local the ferry services are: no schedule online, no telephone number. Half of the people working at the port weren’t even aware there was a passenger boat. Some said it left on Monday, some on Tuesday, others on Wednesday. “You’re too late — it left yesterday,” another woman advised.

After a few wrong turns, we found the boat’s one-room office behind a police post. There was n one there. Outside, a man named Stephen was resting shirtless in a lawn chair.

“This is the place,” he told me. “But come back tomorrow to buy the ticket.”

I begged him to reserve a ticket for me. “Even if a million people come here, please save me one ticket,” I said. If I missed the boat, I’d be stranded in Calabar for another three days until the next boat.

Steven chuckled. “I’ll save you three,” he said.

A day later, I had a Cameroonian visa, a ticket to the ferry and very little sleep – it turned out my hotel room was adjacent to the rowdiest bar in town.

Lessons learned in crossing borders

The day of the boat, Jerry picked me up at the crack of dawn in a sombre white t-shirt, no sunglasses. The port was already packed with passengers in various immigration lines. I joined the queue and was pushed out by various experienced passengers. Every time I turned my head, another person snuck in front.

When I got to the immigration office, my passport made the rounds until someone found something in the booklet to interrogate me about. The officer, like two thirds of the officials there, was dressed in street clothes. I originally took him for another passenger. His name was Al Haji, hard to forget since he wrote it in my notebook.

“Show me your entry stamp,” he said.

“It’s on the immigration page, isn’t it?” I lied. “I don’t know,” I said, flipping through my passport. “What does it look like?”

I knew full well the entry stamp was on the last page of my passport. My visa was valid for three months, but when I entered the country by bus, and the woman asked how long I would be staying in the country, and I said, “I don’t know, maybe a week?” It was the wrong answer because the woman wrote “one week” in my passport. I knew it might be a problem exiting the country.

“It’s here on the last page – you have overstayed by six days,” Al Haji pointed out. “You should have extended your visa.”

“My visa was valid for three months,” I said casually. “The woman stamped my passport as I was crossing the border and I didn’t know she only gave me a week.”

Immigration officers can smell fear. I stayed calm.

“You didn’t check it after all this time?” he pried.

I laughed, shaking my head.

“You should take it like your handbag – you have to check it,” Al Haji scolded.

“You have taught me something,” I said, with a smile.

“Your passport is also too full. Any country can deny you entry because there is no place to stamp,” he said, relenting a bit.

“Ah, you have taught me two things today,” I smiled. “Thank you.”

“You will give me your address so I can be writing you all the time,” he said, finally with a smile. “Now you take mine,” he said, writing his details out semi-legibly. It was a show of solidarity.

Five border crossings, zero bribes paid. That’s like winning the lottery.

Next up: Part II of the journey to Cameroon: A boat ride through the infamous Niger Delta to Cameroon and meeting my first con artist.

Canadian journalist Anjali Nayar is travelling across Africa by train, bus and foot (and when necessary by plane), and will arrive in South Africa just before the World Cup. Along the way, Anjali will tell the continent’s stories through its favourite sport: soccer.

For the trip, Anjali is bringing only the essentials on her back (camera, flip video, computer) and in her hand – a soccer ball. Every day, Anjali will play soccer, whether she’s on the beaches of Accra or stuck in one of Lagos’ impenetrable traffic jams. Sometimes she’ll play with children in the sprawling slums and refugee camps, other times she’ll play with adults in the rich diplomatic quarters of major cities.

Through her Destination: South Africa blog, Anjali hopes CBCSports.ca readers will discover Africa and what the World Cup and the game of soccer means to the continent.

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