Border Crossings
Sorry God, you are out of bounds!

It must have been around 6.30am. I was dozing off, between the head blows proportioned by the car roof as the driver weaves the car to avoid the elephant traps (jokingly called potholes) on the main highway Pamalap-Conakry. But this time, I was woken up not by the car roof but by a rifle butt. A rude soldier was urging me to get out of the car and take my passport to his post. Hmmm..., looks like Colombia, I thought, though over there, it would have been the rifle cannon talking. Still, this guy was in a hurry, to present the prized catch to his boss, as I was the only non-native (by natives I mean ECOWAS citizens, the 15 countries of West Africa) in the car.

The only sure source of energy - solar
I tried to put things into perspective, brushing off the sleepiness. I had the Guinea visa stamped.  My destination entry visa, Ivory Coast, is still valid for a month or so. I did not have a flight ticket from Conakry to Abidjan, but I thought I could argue my way out (quite a challenge, since it has to be in French) by saying that I want to see Guinea by travelling overland. And I had nothing suspicious in the backpack except the GPS, which is too small to be noticed.

Now I could put together what I barely gathered from our driver's warning (that is half in French and the rest, a combination of Fula, Mandinka, etc.) about this military post. He asked each to shell out a 10,000 Guinea Franc note (a bit more than a US dollar), so that he could pay the bribe in bulk and get the matter sorted out quick. Yet, I knew, from my experience, that some border posts need to register travelers' data and I may not escape a thorough checking.

The big, burly, bare-bodied boss, still with the towel around the neck, came out to the desk to receive 'the catch', now being pushed inside the door of the thatched military hut. It has been over a decade since I had to go through such a hassle, but my nose smelled right away that this boss is easy-peasy; rotten..., may be, but I could escape sweet-talking (trying to do that in my French is another matter). That helped me to stay calm and I tried to be formal, dusting out as much of my vocabulary. Hearing the product of my all-out effort, he too switched to 'Fringlish'.

Urged-on by the soldier that caught me, he pulled out the traveler's registry, aged 10 years at the least, and opened to whatever new page. I knew that was just a farce, but followed the 'procedure', indicating to him that he could just write 'yapa', shortening my alphabet-long last name. He appreciated that, but then he had to fill out at least a couple of lines to make the job worthy of 'a substantial payment'. He asked for my itinerary. I was ready for that; just before entering Guinea, I had practiced pronouncing some of its city names. I knew that, lacking any formal bus services here, I had to understand how the bush-taxies shout out the destinations under one breath. I regurgitated some city names by memory. Voila, it worked.

we survived 7hrs with these tires on a terrible road
No, don't you dare pull out maps in front of these insecure security forces. You will be charged a terrorist. I was in the middle of the forest between Kankan and Nzerekore, jam-packed with 20 other passengers into a battered Pajero. (Don't worry, soon you will hear about my ultra-marathon along this major highway.) As we were choking in dust and fumes, the driver stopped the car for a while. I took the opportunity to shoot a couple, at its totally torn-up tires. A militiaman, travelling along with us, was also near my camera range. He had the nerve to threaten me with confiscating my camera! These fearful 'firing robots' now consider themselves as military installations! No wonder whenever there is a popular uprising in this part of the world, we witness so much terrifying carnage. As the saying in Sri Lanka goes, 'when a monkey gets a razor blade in his hands...'

Now, my captor was getting hysterical, seeing how I smooth-sailed the whole procedure. Afraid that this half an hour of shouting and jostling would amount to nothing, he forced my arm to sign under my 'registry' and yelled, "Now, you pay!" I made a foolish face, "I have to pay to sign this piece of paper?" Of course I knew the answer, having swallowed Latin political culture for 20-some years. Even when you denounce government corruption, to file the papers, you have to pay to the same crooked government. A couple of fellow passengers and the driver, partly out of sympathy for me and partly out of the need to get going, also gathered around the hut window. I pulled out the 'kola nut' (the traditional way of greeting a chief, now replaced by the bank note). "You know, we are five", the poor boss now being apologetic, as he was under fire from the shouting soldier. I placed on the desk two more notes, now out of sympathy for the boss, grabbed my documents and ran to the car before they could cook up something else.

Bundles of money are common everywhere
No, I wasn't done. I was called back into the next hut. Looked like the Customs people, but you never know. Anybody with a khaki suite can 'charge', as nobody shows any badge. They went through my bag thoroughly and saw my thick wad of bank notes (I got some 500,000 in Sierra Leone money changed at the border since I had been warned that ATMs in Guinea might not work everywhere). However, they did not 'charge' any fee, as they probably witnessed that nonsensical show put up by the militia minutes ago.

I would qualify this treatment not as an isolated case of bribery, but as extortion under psychological torture. The Sierra Leone side of the border had at least six posts, each charging the fixed price of 5000 Leonians ($0.70). At one point, I even received the change back, since I wasn't carrying small notes! Within the immigration building, every five meters some 'cop' will show up behind a column to flip through my passport and pocket the 'kola nut'. Then the Leonian immigration, who seems to get hardly one non-native a day crossing the border, directed my case to the attention of the chief immigration officer. Since he is the chief, I already had a 10000 note in my hand, but had to wait, since he was on his prayer time-off. When he got back, he attended to all his other businesses but not to me; Yet, he yelled at me, "So you want to pay me off to get out quickly, eh?" I blushed, muttered something apologetic and pocketed my money. Finally, he made me fill out a totally illegible piece of paper and shelved it. And then, with the exit stamp ready in his hand, he announced out loud, "I am not asking for kola, I want your money, get that out on the table!" Cunning old fox..., he was pulling my leg.

In homage to the border vultures
When I got to the desk of Guinea immigration, a few more minutes and 20 more meters away, my head was spinning and I barely heard his bark, "Fifty thousand". I guess Trump can save his water- boarding for somebody else; I would not have withstood half the torture Guantanamo does now. This Guinea immigration guy could have extracted five hundred thousand out of me, under such pressure.

Well, the only other option was to sit there and wear out their patience. But, I was again with a few other passengers in the taxi, and the driver was getting impatient with me. And these crooks know that they are in full control, as international borders are no-man's lands. I am sure that they are out of bounds for the God too.

During my first-ever border crossing by myself, in 1993, I had to shell out a US$ 100 note for the Mexicans, because they noticed that I had overstayed by 4 days. I escaped with that because the 'migra' gave me a 50% discount, when I cried out loud in 'spanglish' about my volunteer work for his country. Barely 10m across, the Belize guys also made me flip a similar note under the table, to let me in for a week without the 'authorization from their Ministry', a requirement they themselves must have cooked up. You probably can recall the Cuban immigration 'tax' of US$60 I had to pay in 1994, because I could not show $1500 in cash, a requirement to get a month's stay in Cuba. In comparison, West Africa charges you petty cash. The issue here is not the amount, but that they demand us money without doing their job (a ton of drugs, arms, diamonds or whatever, would pass through these borders, oiling the palms with the value of just a few milligrams!).

Guinea folk dance troupe in Kindia
One of the few times I gave away money without any hard feelings was at the Desaguadero crossing into Bolivia. There, the police approached the whole thing differently; they were pulling out all my dirty clothes from the bag, but joking and laughing with me. When they asked me something for 'cola', I was more than happy to oblige. At the Abidjan airport, about two months ago, I quite unexpectedly got a 3-month multiple entry visa. This visa was handled by a private company, so, I was not expecting the words accompanying the visa, "don't you have something for coffee?" I let the wind blow that away since the presence of a few of his colleagues nearby did not permit him to insist on it.

But the best, so far, has been at the Freetown airport, Sierra Leone. I already carried a landing permit thanks to my friend there, but did not have an onward ticket, a strict requirement to issue the visa at arrival. I was going to sing my 'travelling overland through Guinea to Ivory Coast to see the country better' story, of course, in Engish. Then again, it could all depend on the mood of the immigration officer. I handed out the landing permit papers and the invitation letter, and watched his reaction. I was not quite ready, though, for what I heard next; "So, you are the person they are waiting outside for, eh?"

Poor me! You know, in these highly fragile political climates, this could mean one of two things: somebody against my host could have tipped off the immigration of my arrival and who knows what they would want. The other, that my friend or her representative waiting for me at the airport..., that I ruled out, since I was informed that somebody would pick me up only after I cross the bay by boat. So, I muttered something vague, wanting to see which way the wind blows.

Traditional house construction is not lost yet
The next question, "So what are you going to do here?" was just a formality; he had already stamped the visa and was clearing the desk to leave, as I was the last person in line. Without waiting for my answer, he fired the next volley, "So, don't you have something for me?" At that moment, I wished I had in my hands those thick, fresh, marigold necklaces that often adorn those neck-less Indian and Sri Lankan politicians... Not them, but this fellow deserved that. My fingers crumpled a couple of bank notes fetched out from my kangaroo (later I figured out that they were Ivorian money, with which he could do nothing in Freetown), and passed it underhanded, as a supervisor-type peeked at his cubicle to see what this long talk is about. The immigration fellow paid no attention to anybody and took me under his charge; he waited till I picked up my luggage, waved-off the Customs officers trying to trap me into their nets, and handed me over personally to the fellow outside holding a placard with my name!

The biggest joke in this Freetown story was not the crumpled Ivorian money, nor my red-carpet welcome there, but the huge, eye-catching billboards everywhere, announcing that 'corruption is a crime.' Given how rotten the system of governing here is, from the very top to the bottom of the society, one wonders whether the anti-corruption campaign itself is a scam to flush out money.

In today's politics everywhere, that is not really too far from the reality. Drug enforcement agencies run the biggest narco-businesses; biggest financial institutions launder the most amount of money; public security services commit the most heinous crimes; and the lawmakers are the most frequent law-breakers.

You may now wonder why in the world I subject myself to this torture, voluntarily. Two reasons come into my mind. Passing from one A/C lounge to another, paying exorbitant fares, to mingle with scented, suited and highbrowed, does not fit with my way of getting to know neighboring cultures. On the other hand, when you are in a vulnerable situation, you unearth the best in people and meet the best of peoples.

The driver, who crossed the Sierra Leone-Guinea border with me, finally took me to a little cozy hostel on the Guinea side. Having cleared some of the dust and the dizziness, I got out seeking some food, and found him already eating. Without any qualms, he right away made space for me on the bench and invited me to share his plate of rice with yogurt! Sharing your plate of food, you should know, is a special invitation in this part of the world, extended only to a good friend or a family member. It was a small act of friendship to wipe away all the bitterness in the world. A friend in need is a friend indeed.

PS: Ten days later, I crossed the Guinea-Ivory Coast border. I had prepared myself psychologically and tactically. Found a local transport that delivered me only to the border. The driver simply passed the first post waving to the military men. Guinea immigration stamped my passport asking for no money. But, before I got to the Ivorian immigration, I was forced to contract a moto-taxi, the only transport to cross 51km to the closest Ivorian town.

When the last Guinea military man threatened not to let the biker cross the border without paying, (he did not threaten me!) I sat down to negotiate. Now on the Ivorian side, the immigration, the customs and even the medic, all were asking me for money. Since I had the Yellow Fever injection, he said that I need one for Meningitis! When you are 50km away from the basic amenities, any story is good to get money and they deserved some too. I managed to get 'discounts' and the customs man got stuck up with a bill that nobody else wanted. A few kilometers away, at the Ivorian military post, one guy hooked up a conversation with me, in Spanish -quite a rarity here, and even offered me a glass of beer! I gleefully paid back the favor with a bank note even before asking.

Two days down the road, I crossed into Ghana along with the thousands that do it daily. What a surprise, I heard not a word on money, from either side! Now, how you explain that?

Kashyapa A.S. Yapa
February 2017, Guinea, West Africa.

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