23 December 2005

Christmas in Mali

So, this morning, we are heading out to Siby, a popular ex-pat place to go camping. It looks to be a good weekend of drinking beer, hiking around, and exploring some waterfalls. We plan to return Sunday afternoon and explore the Ex-Pat Christmas party deal. It looks to be interesting. I will post some pix once I get back.

Just wanted to wish you and yours a Happy Holidays. This will be a weird Christmas, as it will be my first EVER away from home, but all is good.

And lastly, the Top 5 reasons why Christmas in (a hot, Muslim country like) Mali Rules:

1) Presents, what presents.
2) Not having to shovel 2 feet of snow off of your driveway.
3) No annoying Christmas Muzak.
4) Not having to talk to every single relative in your entire extended family.
5) No Christmas commercials that start at Thanksgiving.

Peace and Joy in this Holiday Season,


02 December 2005

Worst travel experience ever??

So let me tell you a little story about perhaps the worst travel experience imaginable. To start off, it was not decided that my Malian colleague Maiga and I would even go to the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria (MIM) conference until late October or so, and even then we found out through a third party that it was going to happen. So once we finally were placed in contact with the necessary people, things started to roll. Then about a week and a half before we left, problems started to occur. They could not find hotels in Cameroon, they could not book travel within Africa for us, and reimbursement issues abounded. So that week and a half before the trip I spent traveling back and forth from my village (a 2 hour trip each day) emailing and calling via the internet the travel company in D.C. that was responsible for our trip to get the travel plans and accommdations down. Finally, paper tickets in hand and reservations secure, we were leaving on Sunday, Nov. 13 at 10:30 bound for Abidjian on Air Senegal, then to Douala on Kenya Air, and then to Yaounde (the capital of Cameroon and the location of the conference) on Cameroon Airlines. The driver picked me up at 7 am and we got to the airport at 8. We were told that the plane had not yet arrived, and that it should arrive shortly. We waited until 10:30, still no plane. 1:00 pm, same thing; 3:00 rolls around and they usher upstairs for a free lunch before the plane arrives. I start to smell a rat at this point, but hey, this IS Africa. Finally at 5:30, after 9.5 hours waiting, they finally said “the plane will not show up today. The next best thing we can do is get you to your destination on Wednesday (the conference started Monday and ended Friday!!).” There were 10 of us from the Malaria Center who were on this flight, 7 or whom had seats booked through the same travel agent, the other 3 bought by the conference committee in Cameroon as sponsored delegates. So, my boss, Dr. Thera, a calm Malian normally, was irate, and demanded something better than what was offered. They politely said no. I offered up the idea of the Air France flight that night to Paris and then to Douala, and the lady said the plane was full (After the fact I found out that that flight is never full and when the African airlines screw up and not have a plane available, they rarely want to use Air France flights because it is too expensive for them to accommodate passengers on those flights!!!)

So, we were able to call our travel agent on the phone on a Sunday night no less and book us passage anyway he could to Cameroon. Well, the best way to get there was on Royal Air Maroc (aka Morocco Airlines) to Casablanca, a 16 hour layover there, and then an overnight flight to Douala, and then a Cameroon Air flight to Yaounde, the conference city. That itinerary would get us in at 8:00 am in Yaounde. So, we decided to do it. We all go back home for some much needed rest before the overnight flight. The driver comes back to pick me up at 12:00 am (the flight is at 3:30 am) and we arrive at the airport. Finally we board the plane. People, Royal Air Maroc kicks ass. They have good, solid planes; decent food; they give you socks, an eye mask, decent pillows, and nice blankets; and the stewardesses are HOT!! Well, despite the early am departure, we arrive in Casablanca at 7:30 am. I was not looking forward to the 16 hour layover in the airport, but I felt I could deal. As usual, there really is no communication between the people in charge and the minions. In this case, we were not to stay at the airport: Royal Air Maroc was going to put us up in a hotel for the day until our flight that night!!! Ahhh, Casablanca, a city I have always wanted to visit. Well, we arrive at the hotel reservation area in the airport, and they have no record of our reservation. My boss explains the situation, and things get ugly. The guy behind the counter actually says, in French: “Listen, I am not trying to be discriminatory here because you are all Africans. . . . .” I mean, the fucking nerve. Finally, a supervisor was called and the situation was cleared up. We hopped in a minivan and headed out to Casablanca! I was so excited I could hardly contain myself!! I let out a “Yeaaahhh” in the car, much to the amusement of the Malians and our Moroccan driver.

Casablanca is, unbeknownst to me, a HUGE city, something like 3 million people. It is the economic hub of Morocco. Imagine Paris or London with an African/Arabic feel to it. Cars everywhere, people hustling and bustling about, truly a modern city. Well, let’s just say that we happened to arrive on the worst day possible: there had been a drought in Morocco for the past 9 months. Guess what the first day was they had rain in over 3 months was?? Yep, you guessed it, the day the Malians and the random American arrived. And we are not talking mild drizzle, we are talking serious downpour here. And to top it all off, it is November in an area with the same latitude and weather as Baltimore, MD, so it is freezing out. All of my warmer clothes are in my checked bags, so it is a little miserable out, but I am in Casablanca!

After a little sleep, I get some Moroccan tea from the downstairs café to warm up, and wait for my colleagues for lunch. As a general rule, never, never ask a tour company person or a desk clerk where the best food is. Our tour guide from the airport recommends this little cantina with “great fish.” We decide to check it out. We get there and look at the menu, and there is not one traditional Moroccan dish. It is literally all fish; Imagine Arthur Treacher’s with a Morrocan/Mediterranean décor. So, since it is pouring outside, we decide to stick it out. It was OK. We then found a cozy little Moroccan tea place near the restaurant. Really, really good. We then headed back to the hotel for our bus tour of the city before returning to the airport. Like I said before, a really cool, chic, cosmopolitan city. And to top it all off, it has a really cool oceanfront area which I can only imagine is hopping during the hot summer months. I must go back there for longer, and when it ain’t raining.

So, we are supposed to leave Casablanca at 6:30 and arrive in Douala at midnight. Well, just to screw with us, the plane decides to have a minor “mechanical malfunction” and we must wait for a while. Finally, at 11:00 pm, the plane finally starts boarding. Luckily, the plane is not full, which means stretching out over 3 seats is a possibility. Giddy up!! After another incredible flight on Air Maroc, we arrive in Douala at 4:30 am. There is only one slight problem: I do not have a Visa. We were told there would be someone there from the MIM conference to help with Visas during normal business hours. Well, assuming normal business hours are not 4:30 in the morning in Cameroon, we were in for a slight problem. And sure enough, I was put in airport jail, literally. Perhaps one of my favorite movies is “Honeymoon in Vegas.” In that movie, Nicholas Cage is trying to win back his fiancé, Sarah Jessica Parker. At one point, he is in line to buy tickets to Hawai’I to rescue her, and he is bothered by a slow customer. He gets so aggravated, he is told to calm down, to which he responds: “What are you going to do, put me in airport jail??” People, I am here to state outright that said airport jail does exist. For me, it was a room the size of a small bedroom with thick, concrete bars on one wall. The room outside of the “cell” was normal, and there was a small sitting area for others, including your research colleagues who are snickering uncontrollably at the American in jail. Meanwhile, I am in the cell with 3 other Africans who I have no idea why they are there, but look meanacing enough to scare the shit out of me.

Well, after 2 hours and some gentle bribing on behalf of my boss, I was able to get my Visa and get the hell out of airport jail. We hurried upstairs to check on our flight to Yaounde. Just to keep the fun times rolling, the flight was cancelled. . . . We were now stuck in Douala at 6:30 in the morning with no way to get to Yaounde. It was humid as shit outside, we barely slept, I just got out of jail, and the sun hadn’t even risen yet. Well, someone from afar must have seen our sorry sight of a research team and decided to have pity on us just for a moment. At 8:00, a shuttle bearing the words “MIM 2005” showed up. I wasn’t sure, but I could have sworn I saw a heavenly glow shining on the white van. . . . We approached the driver like thirsty desert dwellers, asking, more like begging for a ride. He said he could not, as he was there to pick up one other passenger who was arriving in a few hours. “A few hours?” we said. “We are 7 and we are ready to go now!! Is there anything you can do?”

After some mild cajoling, he agreed, and we all boarded the bus for our 3.5 hours drive to Yaounde. It was a nice ride, from what I remember of it. The lush, tropical paradise of Douala gradually becoming the more mild, temperate Yaounde. We finally arrived at our hotel, 53.5 hours after our original departure time. What a relief I felt. But somehow, I knew things were not over yet.

We all showered up quickly, and headed towards the conference at the Palais de Congres, a huge conference center on top of one of the many hills that adorn Yaounde. It looked nice from the outside, but it could definitely use an upgrade. We arrived with the hustle of the second day of the conference already underway. We arrived at the registration table, money in hand (750 Euro for me!!! Don’t even get me started here), ready to register. The woman handling the on-site registration was not there at that time, so we had to wait. Meanwhile, 10 others were behind the table, doing nothing. I will never truly understand this continent. Finally she shows up. “Oh, sorry, we are no longer registering conference participants.”

I could not believe my ears. “Excuse me?”

“We have no more materials to hand out, and we have no more badges. I am sorry. You should have registered before hand.”

I am about to either burst into tears or strike this lady. Thankfully, neither of the two happens. I explain our situation and still nothing. There are others in the same boat as I, and we all get frustrated. Then, my anger level gets really high. I am really pissed off. Finally the conference organizer walks over and discussed the problem with us. Evidently, they had ordered 500 extra bags for the conference that never arrived. As far as the badges, that was our only entrance into the conference. He finally agreed that allowing all those who came to have access to the science at least. So we got badges (I felt like saying “Badges, we don’t need no stinking badges,” but I am afraid my overused phrase from “Blazing Saddles” would fall on deaf ears) but no food coupons, no access to the socials, nothing. It truly sucked.

Luckily, the people giving out the food and drinks did not hear about the food coupon thing. So, in the mad rush to get “lunch,” people just grabbed and went. Well, lunch was really a small finger sandwich, an orange, and a warm beverage. Luckily for me, they ran out of non-alcoholic beverages, so all they had to drink was warm, Cameroonian beer!! So, at least that made my day.

The rest of the conference went well. The science was very interesting and I made some incredible contacts. I even ran into some friends of mine from Tulane! Truly a random coincidence. The unfortunate part was that the conference organization was lacking. On top of the registration fiasco and the lack of good food, the conference talks ran late, talks did not start on time, the press were annoying. Despite that, I had a great time.

Leaving Cameroon was another fiasco. So I am supposed to leave from Douala, as I was told by a source who will remain nameless, that it was a better international hub. I signed up for a conference shuttle to pick me up at my hotel around 4:30. I waited, and waited for the shuttle, but got no response. Another driver showed up for a shuttle to the Yaounde airport, and I asked him about my shuttle. Of course, my question fell on deaf ears. I did call his supervisor, who had said they told the hotel that the shuttle would be moved up to 3:00 pm and that they were to tell all passengers about that!! Well, I was stuck. I was furious, and told the guy that I had a flight leaving Douala that night. He said my only option was to take a taxi and take the bus from Yaounde to Douala. I was even more furious and told him that I would do as he suggested as long as it should be them who came to pick me up and drop me off at the bus station and pay for my ticket. Somehow, he agreed. Within 5 minutes, a driver was there and I had a ticket to Douala. Now, perhaps one of the sketchiest roads in Afriica is the highway between Yaounde and Douala, and it is doubly worse at night. I prayed rather hard that my young American ass would be OK. The trip ended up being pretty uneventful, except for this charlatan/traveling salesman peddling traditional medicine cures. Truly an interesting guy, but a quack.

Well, I arrive in Douala somewhat near the airport, and take a taxi there. I go through the check-in and realize there are not too many people there. I start to wonder if something is up, and sure enough it is. There is a gaggle of people waiting over by the Air France office, talking with someone. Turns out Air France overbooked out flight by 30 people. The flight was overbooked leaving Yaounde (unbeknownst to me an option) and when they arrived in Douala, they had to kick off people in economy to make room for the First Class and Business passengers!! Well, they put me up in a shit bag motel near the airport, and I got a chance to see Douala, at least for a little bit. I had no way of contacting my parents, my friends in Houston who I was going to see, nor the Dean of the Tulane medical school with whom I had arranged to give a talk to the students. Somehow, I found the only Internet Café open in Douala on a Sunday, and was able to reach them, somehow. I then spent some time at the artisan market, looking for a particular mask that I had seen earlier. My shrewd bartering techniques I had learned in Mali paid off, as I found the mask I wanted, plus some smaller ones for a damn good price if I do say so myself.

I finally made it back to the hotel, and hopped on the shuttle to the airport. Well, when I arrived, the line for my flight was out the door already. This was at 7:00 pm for a midnight flight. I begrudgingly get in line, and for a while I never think I am going home. Luckily the Air France agent that helped us the night before, ushered us in front of the line, even in front of the First Class passengers, much to their dismay, and got us processed. We then had to go to another line to get our ticket and check out bags. We then proceeded to another line to pay our airport tax. After that, another line to get our boarding passes for this flight, and then another line to get our boarding passes for our connecting flights in Paris. Well, there was a problem with my flight, so I had to stand in another line to get that straightened out, and then back to the original line to get my boarding passes (Mind you it is humid as hell there and no A/C, so I am sweating like a dog). I then proceed to another line to pick up my reimbursement for Air France fucking up the night before (~ $200 cash) and then finally to the gate. Well, just to fuck with me one more time, the guy checking boarding passes at the entrance to customs said my bag was too heavy. I explained to him that I had been in line since 7:00 pm, and no one before him had said my bag was too big or too heavy. He insists, and I insist. Finally, someone has to mediate, and I lose. So back to the original line to check another bag. Then back to the line in the back of the airport to get a new luggage tag for that bag. Then finally back to the asshole pre-customs guy, who finally waved me through. Then it was off to customs, to check passports and visas (which they originally thought was false, but luckily the woman I had paid off to get me out of airport jail at 6:30 am was there to nod and that was that!!), and a thorough check of all of my baggage. I finally arrived at the gate at 11:00 pm, 4 hours after I had arrived at the airport. Can you believe this? I think I should win some kind of award for this, if one even exists.

Thankfully, my flight to Paris and then to Houston was uneventful, and I slept like a baby. Now I just had to deal with New Orleans. . . . .