Sunday, February 14, 2010

Notes from Niger

Dear all,

I'm sure you could tell that we enjoyed the time we spent with Dov. I
hope that it was the first of many meetings. But I don't think I need
to visit Niger again any time soon.

Niamey, the capitol city, is pretty strange. It reminded me of
Garissa, the dry, dusty town where we stayed when visiting the village
of Dertu in eastern Kenya. But Niamey is the capitol city. As John
said, "This is as good as it gets in Niger." Niamey is dry, dry, dry.
Soft red dirt covers everything. There are goats roaming the city,
like the cats in some other cities.

There are no street signs in Niamey. People somehow find their way
around, and since all mail is picked up at one's post office box,
there is no need to make things workable for the mailman.

People shop in roadside stands or at one of the very large town
markets, which sell meats as well as vegetables. Laundry from all over
the city is picked up by the launderers, washed in the Niger River and
hung over bushes and clotheslines on the riverbank to dry.

Niger is a real backwater in other ways as well. There are no atms in
the whole country which accept US bank cards. We don't usualy carry
traveler's checks but happened to have them this time. We went to 3
banks before finding one able to exchange them, and then at a 25%
service charge. Finally we got Liz to send funds Western Union, which
was an adventure in itself. "Dear Liz, Please send $500 as soon as
possible." "Dear Mom, Are you ok?" Someone here joked, "At least she
didn't ask, 'Do I need to send it to the local jail?'"

We were there before the hot dry season By April and May daytime
temperatures will reach 120 degrees F !!! Niger's nickname is the
frying pan of the Sahara.

I know my French is nothing to brag about. My only consolation is the
comic relief I provide to the natives. I"m leaving them laughing in my
wake. So I think I have the right to pass along a quote from the sign
in our Niamey hotel room: if you have a problem with your room, seize
the Management of the hotel.

Leaving Niamey was an adventure all in itself. We had a 5 hour layover
in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. People in Niamey pointed out that since
we did not have a visa we would be unable to go out and see the city,
but that there was an air conditioned restaurant where we could hang
out and have dinner during the layover.

What they didn't realize, though, was that the airport is being
renovated. In the meantime, they have closed ALL the buildings except
for the gates. You arrive, pick up your bags in a temporary shelter,
and exit to the parking lot in order to re-enter the departure side of
the airport.

We presented quite a conundrum to them. We had not been advised to get
a visa for Burkina Faso, being only in transit. The police really
wanted us to have a visa, and they could provide a day visa. We came
to agree that this would be best. However, the police photographer (2
photos required for a visa) was not to be found, so that was not an
option after all.

So the policewoman wrote us a small receipt and told us to leave our
passports on her desk, collect our luggage and then go have dinner and
come back at 10 pm (the flight was scheduled to depart at 10 pm). We
had a lot of conversation about this (did I mention that all of this
negotiating was in French) but ultimately John was convinced that we
should do it

"Leave our passports on a desk in an airport where there isn't even
any airport there???". I couldn't believe he wanted us to do this. "It
will be an adventure," he said, "something we'll look back on and
laugh about." "We'll only laugh about it if we get our passports
back," I said

So we go out into Burkina-Faso sans passports, collect our luggage
(thank heavens still sitting there after our lengthy conversation with
the police), and go outside. Only then did we realize that the
departure area was also closed for renovations. All that was left was
another temporary shelter, where you check in before going to your

Now what? We're standing in the parking lot surrounded by taxi drivers
who are explaining that because of the renovation there is no
air-conditioned place to sit for 5 hours and have dinner. They say we
should go with one of them to a nice place, a hotel with an
air-conditioned restaurant. Whoever we choose will bring us back to
the airport in time for our flight. All in French.

And that is exactly what we did. We pick Amadou - the oldest,
sweetest, most harmless-looking one of the bunch and start off with
him. One of our new advisors stops us, saying "No. First you must ask
him the cost. Then you go off with him." That done, we put our luggage
in the oldest cab in the lot and go off with Amadou.

And guess what? We had a lovely cool afternoon sitting in an
air-conditioned restaurant 5 minutes from the airport. Dinner was
delicious (everybody serves "capitaine" - Nile Perch and it's
fantastic. The French influence. I suppose), and spent the time
writing the letter about Farmers of the Future. (Ruth and Liz, it
reminded us of those long afternoons in the Athens airport except no
one was smoking.) Exactly at the agreed upon time, Amadou returned us
and our luggage to the airport, where our passports were waiting with
the police.

It was not all smooth sailing after that. At every step in the
departure process - and there were many - we were challenged as to why
we had no visa. The line took forever to work its way through all the
checkpoints. We did not reach security until after 10pm. We were
really worried we would miss the flight and have to stay in
Ouagadougou until the next flight - two days later!

We needn't have worried. The flight was
2 1/2 hours delayed. By the time we arrived in Bamako, checked into
our hotel and got to bed, it was about 4am. The only saving grace was
that Bintu, from the MDG Centre, met us with a limo - on the tarmac! -
whisked us off to the vip lounge, handled our immigration details, and
then bundled us off to bed.

Toto, we're not in Niger any more.
- Show quoted text -

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