(As I mentioned in my previous post, I had quite an adventure trying to get back to the States. I spent over 58 hours in transit and faced many challenges including ticket problems and people trying to squeeze money out of me. It’s a long account, but so was my trip…)
As soon as I arrived at the airport in Liberia I started to have problems. Even though we arrived at the airport 1 hr 40 min before boarding, the check-in had shut down for some unknown reason. After much arguing they finally let me in. One of the security guards (who later told me his name was “J”) said he could get me in if I find a “small something” for him. I didn’t agree or disagree, but he disappeared inside clearly assuming I had agreed.
They finally let me inside (some manager named “C” said they’d make an exception for me) and started checking me in, but there was a problem with my ticket. They made some calls, and finally got me checked in. I would later learn (in Ghana) that the problem was that I had been routed through LAX, but LAX is not equipped to receive people from Ebola countries — instead you are required to go through JFK, ORD, etc.
After I got everything checked, I started filling out customs info. The employee that had been walking me through the check-in process and had helped convince people to let me through, hung around and started asking me for money (he wanted $10-20 USD, which is ridiculous) to “make sure my luggage got through”. But you can’t say “no” to that without risking your luggage disappearing… so I quickly agreed, but then as I reached in my backpack for some money I pretended to have left my wallet in the car. I had him give me his full name so that when I returned to Liberia I could “find something for him”. We became great “friends”. But really, I’d rather call the hotline I saw on a poster in the airport for reporting people trying to extort money…
Also, J (from earlier) came back to tell me in passing that I was going to buy him a soda. I told him to meet me after I got through security. Security became a little bit more stressful after one of the supervisors made a joke about taking my laptop…
Finally, when I was all through and I was sitting with all the people waiting, I started looking for J. I saw him come through security and I waved for him to come over to me, but instead he motioned that he wanted to meet near the bathrooms. So I went over and explained to him that I had “lost my wallet”, but I told him I could write his name down and help him when I get back. He put his hands up and said to just forget about it. Smart man.
I was pretty surprised to go through all this — I haven’t had this much trouble in Liberia before. But then my troubles continued after I landed in Ghana.
As soon as I landed in Ghana they rushed me through all the lines so that I could make my transfer to British Airways. I collected my luggage (and breathed a huge sigh of relief when I finally saw it coming through), and then hurried to the departure lines. But again, I had the problem with my ticket — I needed to change the airport through which I would enter the U.S. So they referred me to the British Airways office at the airport and we started trying to figure out the problem.
But by the time we figured out what was going on, the entire airport had shut down. So now I’m stuck in the Accra airport with no phone, no internet (the internet cafe is closed), no food, no local currency, and no water. The woman I was working with in the kiosk gave me $10GHS (Ghanaian currency) and wished me luck.
I used the money to buy phone credits and then I started finding people to let me use their phones so I could call the 24-hour Samaritan’s Purse travel hotline. The woman on the hotline helped me book a hotel and arranged a shuttle to get there.
However, when I got to the hotel, they told me it had been booked for the past two weeks and they have no idea what sort of reservation I had. But at least I had internet in the hotel now, and could try to figure things out with Samaritan’s Purse. Somehow nothing worked and so I was in limbo. Finally, the receptionist told me they had a suite available and they’d just give it to me for the price of a regular room, so I went for it.
The next day in Ghana was uneventful except for the moment when I bent down to tie a shoe and I tore wide open the crotch of the Liberian pants I had been traveling in. Solomon, my Liberian tailor, really needs more practice… I’m getting holes in the pockets too. I got a needle and thread from the hotel and spent an hour sewing up my pants.
That evening, I headed back to the airport for my rescheduled flight and visited the British Airways woman and returned her $10 GHS with a little more and thanked her for her help. We’re friends now! Then I went to try to catch my flight.
But then, I was going through immigration and they told me I didn’t have a visa. I told them I was transferring. But they took me to a back room to some immigration officials who would only talk to me between plays of the soccer game that they were watching. They told me I needed to give them $50USD for a transit visa. Really?? I told them I had no cash, but they insisted. They wanted me to go to an ATM.
So I tried to leave, but on my way out, the official watching the line wouldn’t let me leave unless I gave her my passport. I told her that was ridiculous. So I asked her for her name so that I could find her when I got back. She wouldn’t give it to me. She told me her shift was going to continue for a while and so there would be no problems. I read her name off of her name badge and told her that I knew her name now.
An airport-friend I made earlier from the British Airways area helped me get to the ATM and withdraw money. It was all in GHS. He suggested that I pretend to have only $120GHS and to try to get them to help me with the rest. I thought that was a fine idea.
I headed back to discover that the woman with my passport was gone. Of course! Good thing I got her name. Her coworkers told me she was going to be right back. About a minute later she came. I gave her a hard time about leaving and joked with her that she made my heart stop. I managed to get a little friendliness from her.
She asked what I needed and I explained — and she passed my passport off to someone else who went to one of the desks and got all the stamps I needed. Then she asked me for some money. Ha! I explained that I needed a receipt and that she needed to take me to the official office. But my passport had already been stamped, so I had the upper hand now.
So I went back to the official watching football. He was on the phone apparently arguing with a family member about some other money matter. After he finished putting me on hold I offered him the $120GHS, pretending to misunderstand the exchange rate. He said it wouldn’t make it, and that I needed $185GHS=$50USD. I didn’t let on that I had more money with me and instead acted exasperated — “You mean you want me to go outside AGAIN??” “I just want to leave here! Give me a break!”
He asked me what I was doing in Liberia, and I explained I was doing humanitarian work there. He said “why can’t you do something for Ghana?”. And I replied “Oh, so stopping Ebola can’t help Ghana?”. He liked the comeback, and considered my situation. Finally, he agreed.
I thanked him profusely, then asked him for a receipt. Now he was getting exasperated. “You can’t get a receipt if you’re not paying the full amount!”. But I told him I really needed that receipt. He motioned for me to go to the woman at the desk in the corner of the room and for her to make me a receipt. But now nobody knew what to do. They discussed it for a while and then just told me to go. I asked if they needed the money. “No, your passport is already stamped. Just go.”
What an adventure! It only took three days… but now I’m here in one piece and in good spirits! But I’m still stuck with my Ghanaian currency… I can’t find anyone who can make the exchange here. (Those guys from Ghana somehow found a way to squeeze me even from way over there!!)