from Madrid Spain.
People I met on the street frequently tried to be helpful, but several provided erroneous or conflicting directions sending me on wild goose chases. When I ask other pedestrians for help I rarely expect to understand their spoken answers, but almost always they point to emphasize their instructions. The pointing is all I really want because later on while walking in the correct direction I’ll ask again and get another course correction or confirmation from someone again pointing. On occasion overly helpful people in a group discussing my problem will point in opposite directions all the while jabbering in both Arabic and French, neither of which can I understand totally confusing the situation. These I just ignore like they never happened.
Finally, I broke down and started using taxicabs to reach a few of the more important embassies... only to discover none of them provide visa service for visiting foreign tourists! Unbelievably, they told me I would need to return to my home country to get a visa to visit their country! Well. As other travelers have written about successful efforts to get visas in their stories published on the Web, I felt confident I too would find a way… eventually.
During one of my explorations I met Malika, a 28 year old locally educated Moroccan woman who is now an accountant at the Claude Bernard High School. She spoke excellent English. In addition to helping me find one of the embassies I'd been looking for, we had a long conversation about her country and cultural. She told me about Moroccan courting and marriage practices... how she met her husband. Social interactions are not all that different from those in our country, perhaps a little more formal when it comes to the interactions of the parents of the couple contemplating marriage. But, casual unplanned encounters are the norm for meeting your mate, just as they are in California or Nevada.
I answered some of her questions about American attitudes concerning terrorists: "No. Most of the Americans I know do not believe all Muslims are terrorists! Every population produces a small percentage of crazy psychopaths who are easy prey for extremist groups of every ilk. Radical Muslims happen to be making most of the news worthy violent trouble in the world right now, but every culture is at risk. Reasonable people everywhere must speak out in support of tolerance of the widest range of divergent ideas and cultural practices... and condemn the destructive deviants." She agreed.
I pointed out that Americans would be celebrating Thanksgiving the day we spoke and I wondered if she knew anything about it. She stared blankly at me without answering. No one over here has even heard of the American Thanksgiving holiday, though Moroccans do seem to know a lot of other things about America... certainly a lot more than the average American knows about Morocco. Morocco was the first country to recognize the independence of the new American Republic in 1777 and everyone here is keen to remind this American of that fact. America in turn supported Morocco’s contentious bid for independence from France in 1942.
Then I asked her if she understood the theory of evolution and how other religious people she knew handled the apparent contradictions with the Koran. Her reply made me realize many educated Muslims are now as sensible as well informed people in other parts of the world. Previous similar conversations had led me to believe all Muslims tended to interpret their Koran literally much like their fundamentalist Christian counterparts do in our country. That is not so, "We study science in this country and understand the holy book in not a science text, though some of the early scientific observations and predictions recorded in the Koran are astonishingly accurate!"
I had raised the question because of my bewilderment over the many polls that show as many as 60% of Americans doubt the scientific validity of Darwin's conclusions. That 60% number is astounding considering the Catholic Church has officially recognized the validity of the Theory of Evolution and 22% of Americans are Catholic! That could suggest that only 18% of non-Catholic Americans understand the overwhelming evidence in support of the well established principles of evolution! Our education system is failing miserably and we are raising a generation of science ignorant citizens. One small glimmer of hope is that a few Christians have been embracing the view that if evolution is true, it is because God chooses to create in this way: the Theistic Evolution view. That is at least a foot in the door.
On the train heading back north from Rabat to Tangiers I watched sheep herders along the way doing what sheep herders have done for thousands of years. I saw many people riding donkeys or in carts being pulled by the beasts. Some things change slowly. As I approached Tangiers I considered spending a night there… or longer. However, on reaching the port city late in the afternoon and pondering the situation over a Big Mack and Coke I changed my mind and immediately caught a ferry back over to Spain that same day. Once back in Algeceris I discovered an overnight bus back up to Madrid run by the same company, Daibus I had used for the trip down two weeks earlier. That made the decision easy and while one gets little sleep on a bus, it does eliminate the need for an expensive hotel for one night. So, I convinced myself spending a night in a cramped bus seat shouldn't be too much worse than a seat on an airplane. But, I didn't count on my overflowing seat mate, a gypsy girl who wanted to sleep on part of my seat as well as hers. Imagine the problems I had trying to accommodate a hot gypsy butt that kept crowding me through the first half of the nine hour trip. Fortunately, during the rest stop I discovered a lever that moved the seats four inches apart for the second half of the trip.
23-26 November: I jumped around among several hotels while trying to find embassies and flights. With great disappointment I learned the Gabon embassy in Madrid only provides visas for Spanish citizens. The Equatorial Guinea embassy on the other hand told me no visa at all is required for Americans to visit their country and that I should be able to get a Gabon visa there without any trouble. The problem with Equatorial Guinea is costs. Prices there are even higher than in Madrid! And, prices are high here in Madrid. I didn't realize just how high until I ran into a site comparing costs of living around the world at a clever site called Expatistan. Yep, Madrid is expensive. The good news is that almost everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa will be cheap by comparison and with any luck I am off to central West Africa in a few days.
After a lot of Internet research it began to look like my best option would be to head for Cameroon where Gabon visas are reported to be easily provided to foreign tourists. However, the Cameroon embassy in Madrid described ambiguous visa requirements for their country, but conceded I might get one once all their idiotic conditions were met. The staff at the visa section is far from cooperative. I got the impression they really do not want foreign tourists in their country.
After a good deal of research I found several Madrid to Yaounde flight options. A 923 Euros (about $1240) roundtrip fare using Royal Air Moroc is the cheapest I could find.
While still searching for a good value lodge in Madrid I found the Insignia Hotel-apartment with a base room rate of 55 Euros and the option of adding half board for a total of 68 Euros (about $91). The included meals were so good I ended up staying here a total of five nights while completing visa and transportation arrangements for Cameroon.
The encounter with the Cameroon Embassy representatives starting Monday has been a frustrating test of my patience. I believe I may have had my first encounter with the pervasive corruption reported to be endemic in that part of Africa. During my first contact with the woman behind the glass window in the embassy she pretended to not understand English, suggesting the use of a French translator standing nearby. Eventually I learned I would need to buy a round trip flight and arrange for a confirmed reservation at a hotel in Cameroon before I could even submit a visa application! Displaying my previously prepared passport photos I asked if they would suffice and she reluctantly agreed they would. So, I made a flight reservation and contacted a hotel in Cameroon explaining the visa requirements and suggesting an email message offering accommodation might suffice.
The email letter of invitation from the Hotel Ideal in Yaounde Cameroon apparently raised questions as did the quality of the two photos I provided. The seventy-seven Euros cash I paid was acceptable, however. Later, it turned out this representative of the Camerounian Republic spoke perfect English, and had deliberately tried to confuse me with her feigned lack of understanding of my responses in English to her questions. She did accept my application package, however and I left expecting to pickup my visa stamped passport in two or three days.
Shortly after I got back to the hotel that same day I received a garbled phone call from a woman at the embassy indicating they wanted actual professional photographs and a confirmed hotel reservation in Cameroon, not just an email offer. I spent the next day arranging these and finally had everything assembled Tuesday night for another visit to the embassy early Wednesday morning.
Wednesday, the day my visa was supposed to be ready became a day of education in the range of shenanigans West African people can concoct. When I arrived at 10:00 with the final confirmed hotel reservation FAX, my “Yellow card” vaccination record and two new crisp professional passport photos to replace the two originally provided, I was told to return at 13:00, presumably to pick up my passport and visa. But when I got back to the hotel after that meeting another message summoned me back to the embassy immediately, to answer some questions the “boss” had about my reasons for waiting until I got to Spain to request a visa.
The Metro ride between the hotel and the embassy takes fifty minutes each way, so it took a lot of time to meet all these detail requirements, but meet them I did, providing answers to all of the questions raised by the “boss.”
That settled, I was told to return at 15:00 again presumably to pick up the visa. As it was just noon at that point I decided to walk around the area and have lunch to kill the three hours until 15:00. At 3 o’clock they ushered me into yet another functionaries’ office to hear a lecture about embassy regulations that ended with the reticent woman from the receiving front office being called in to hear the last part of his lecture: “No, he did not think it would be possible to issue me a visa.” However, after a good deal of pointless explanations he did concede the final decision would be made by the Charge de Affairs in the morning… that would be Thursday morning… about 09:30, the day my presently scheduled early evening flight leaves!
These people are playing games: providing incomplete or false instructions to applicants… or failing to ascertain the traveler’s status. By requiring applicants to have both a confirmed hotel reservation and an airline ticket to the country before they will even accept an application for a visa, there is a presumption a visa will eventually be issued. The unnecessary wheel spinning is costly and aggravating. A denied visa can mean penalties for canceling or changing airline tickets… or even forfeiture of the entire fare! In my case the round trip fare is 923 Euros or about $1225!
So now I faced a dilemma: cancel my flight in order not to forfeit the entire fare, change the departure date or try to figure out a way to get a partial refund and head for visa-free Equatorial Guinea to get the Gabon visa. A very helpful receptionist, Sergio Abella at my hotel contacted the airline office and learned I needed to cancel the flight 24 hours before the scheduled flight time in order to avoid forfeiture of the entire fare and that turned out to give me only 2 hours to dash over to the Royal Air Maroc office. At my pleading Sergio questioned the RAM agent and learned it would be possible to change the departure date to 10 December (over a week later) with a small 62 Euro ticket change fee. We made that change with the understanding it would need to be confirmed in person at the RAM office by noon tomorrow… or again forfeit the entire 923 Euro fare!
The Metro rapid transit system in Madrid is wonderful. A single ride to anywhere in the city is about $2, but various multiple ride tickets are available the make rides cheaper, including the tourist passes. A one day pass for $8 is good for unlimited rides for 24 hours. I bought a 5 day pass for about $25 and then another day pass today to deal with the visa/airline hassles. So, I have been riding a lot of Metro trains. They are a great place to watch people and are a favorite hangout for beggars: the cars are warm and there is no limit on how long you may remain in the system for your $2 ticket.
Every other ride on the Madrid Metro features the “performance” of an eager beggar working the captive audience. One lady stepped inside our car shaking a rattle unrhythmically and singing off key until she had everyone’s attention. Her grinning speech in Spanish amused many on the train and I speculated she had threatened to renew her awful musical performance unless bribed to move on. Quite a few beggars are obviously eating well. Every time I see a fat beggar I can’t help wondering if being well fed is a reflection of his success as a beggar.
I had an amazingly long and coherent conversation in Spanish with the receptionist at the Equatorial Guinea embassy in Madrid. I’m surprised how much of the language has stuck with me since that yearlong sojourn through Latin America in 2005. I started that trip with a single Spanish phrase: “I only speak English.” By the end of the trip I discussed business, culture and philosophy with people patient enough to work with me. Immersion is the way to learn a language; no doubt about that.
Enterprising businesses create glossy advertising labels for use in Gorilla marketing campaigns. One sees them affixed to every imaginable public surface including the sidewalks. The practice reminds me of similar tactics I saw used by crafty forged document promoters in northern China during my trip through that country in 2003.
Someone discovered hydrofluoric acid will etch glass and now thousands of windows in Madrid are defaced with graffiti using the glass etching acid.
Crosswalks in Madrid have audible signals that change from long-long-long repeated downward chirps to a distinctly different sound as the end of the crossing period approaches. While the system is undoubtedly provided for blind people, it is a convenience for those of us who are sighted as well; no need to keep an eye on the countdown numbers to make it safely across the street.
I am astounded by the number of passionate lovers kissing in public; there is an epidemic in Madrid. At one point two lovers had become so distracted by their passion on an escalator they nearly caused a pileup at the bottom. People tumbling around them seemed oblivious to the near catastrophe, hurrying onward to catch their next trains.
With any luck at all the next postcard will be coming from somewhere in Cameroon. Until then,
Fred L Bellomy
Central West Africa map.