While preparing for my Central Africa trip, I knew that getting into Equatorial Guinea would be a difficult task. Still, it was one of the countries left to visit, so I paid the embassy in Libreville a visit. A little difficult to find because they had just moved to a new location in a shiny building, I was welcomed by a Senegalese guardien, and the security staff were remarkably friendly. I filled out the application form, and waited until a staffmember of the embassy, dressed in neatly pressed trousers and an orange shirt came out, inspected my documents, and told me I could only enter if I would wear trousers, not "culottes". I had 3/4 pants, and was at a loss, but the friendly guardien let me into his small room at the entrance, and borrowed me his pants. Once inside, I was overwhelmed by a luxuriously fitted interior. After a while, I was admitted into the office of an older gentleman, who looked kind. Things were going so smoothly, I wondered how I ever thought that getting the visa would be difficult. He closely examined all the documents, leafed through my passport in which he was looking at all the entry and exit stamps and visas, and after a while, laid them down. We were speaking French, because he had a French newspaper on his desk, and he asked me more about my job. Then, abruptly, he said that I needed a letter of invitation. He stared in front of him, and I politely asked him how I could obtain such letter, if I was applying for a tourist visa, and obviously did not know anyone in the country. He just repeated the requirement, and there was a long silence. After a while, he got his reading glasses, and continued reading his newspaper, as if I were not sitting at his desk anymore. When asked, he motioned me away with his hand. I went to an internet place, tried to call hotels in Bata, but after a while, learnt that hotels were not willing to send an invitation letter, as this would imply responsibility for me during my stay in the country. I went to the consulate of my country, who were very kind, but told me that my country does not have a representative in Equatorial Guinea yet. Moreover, they told me that getting a visa is extremely difficult, even for people who go there for work. I wrote a good friend of mine who is a security officer for the UN, and who immediately contacted his colleague in Equatorial Guinea; but he also said that getting the visa was next to impossible even for diplomatic staff. I then wrote a letter in which I explained the purpose of my visit, and returned the next day. This time, the clerk at the entrance was less than friendly, and I was not even allowed to talk to the old man I had seen the day before: the invitation was missing, and without it, they would not consider my application. When asked how I could possibly get an invitation, he curtly answered that I should just go somewhere else, and from then on, ignored me. Just as I was undressing outside the gate (I was using the silver-grey pants of the guardien again), and trying to accept that visiting Equatorial Guinea was not going to happen this time, a tall, almost bold guy with golden glasses appeared, and asked me if I was OK. When I told him the story, he went inside, and within minutes, I passed the surprised clerk, and was sitting in yet another office with a white lady, the secretary of the ambassador. She glanced through my papers, and said that, as a tourist, I was not required to show any invitation. Within two minutes, the old man I had spoken to the day before, entered - undoubtedly warned by the clerk whom I had greeted with a big smile on my face while passing his desk, and he started speaking Spanish to the lady, perhaps thinking I would not understand. He said that they were dealing with an "extremely delicate matter" (referrring to me), but before he could continue, the lady asked me to wait outside. Through the brandnew wooden doors, I could hear their conversation, and imagined that he would have it his way - he was much senior than her. But after a while, she let me in again, carefully read the statement about the purpose of my travel, and took a copy of my passport and the visa for Gabon, so I could travel around freely. Then, she told me that the visa would be very costly: 400.000FCFA, over 600 Euro/800 US$. It took me aback, but in the back of my mind, I quickly calculated that any other way of visiting the country would be more costly. I had read that you have to pay for additional permits while in the country, so I asked her if I had to pay more upon entering, if I could use any border crossing, if I was free to move around the country, and if I could take pictures, and she assured me that yes, with a tourist visa I would be completely free to go anywhere and do anything I wanted to, and that no, I would not have to pay anything anymore in the country. She said that, perhaps, a crazy guy at the border might ask me for 1000F, but that I should just refuse to pay. She gave me her business card, and told me I could call her in case I ran into trouble. Arsenia: Spanish father, Guinean mother. As agreed, I called her when I arrived back in Libreville a few days later, and she told me to meet her in a restaurant next to Mbolo, the biggest supermarket in town, but to allow her some time to prepare herself (the embassy was already closed). She showed up in miniskirts and high-heeled shoes, and a tightly fitting dress that showed her female figure very well - a stark contrast with the strict dress code of her embassy. She seemed nervous, and asked me to follow her in her luxurious black car with blinded windows. A small, white dog called Luna was sitting at the pedals and jumped to the backseat, right on my application form. Now that she was sitting next to me, I could look into her dress, with part of her breasts exposed. I suddenly realized that she wanted me to see her like this - she had carefully chosen this attire to meet me. With the 400.000FCFA in my pocket, it felt like I was dealing with a high-class hooker, about to embark on a long, steamy night. Instead, she asked me for my passport, pulled out a receipt, and rather abruptly said "Cuatro". I handed her the money, she wrote the receipt, put a stamp of the embassy and her signature. I again asked her if I would really not need any additional permit to take pictures, upon which she took out a brand-new iPhone 5 and called a colleague who confirmed that, with the tourist visa, I was free to take pictures. I could not help but think that the money I had just given her was sufficient to buy that same flashy phone she was using. She suddenly looked very tired, and I wished her a good weekend. There would be no steamy night with her.
On Monday morning, she called me to say that my visa was ready, and asked me to come to the same bar again. While waiting for her, I saw the tall, almost bold Congolese guy with the golden glasses walk by. I already had a bad feeling about the extremely expensive visa, and remembering how his intervention had led me to Arsenia, I started to wonder if they had teamed up somehow. A few minutes later, Arsenia showed up herself in another remarkably exposing dress, handed me the passport, made me sign a form, and disappeared inside, allowing me a last glimpse of her tightly fitting clothes. The visa looked clumsy, but it was really there, with the correct dates and all, and the word "Tourist" in red handwriting, while the word "Gratuito" (free) was crossed out with a pen. After applying for an additional visa for Congo (a straightforward process, costing one day, and 30.000FCFA), I left early next morning on a pick-up truck to Cocobeach, the border. Officers at one checkpoint on the way scrutinized my papers, but could not find anything. I was apprehensive when I arrived at the border, but to my big surprise, the staff were more than friendly, and we had a nice chat. The lady was shocked when I told her about the price for the visa, and she took a coloured photo copy as proof, and promised me to find out how it could be so expensive. She also called the border post in Kogo, at the other side of the border, to make sure they would accept a foreigner; she told me that, sometimes, foreigners get sent back. But all seemed clear, and I now only had to wait for a motorboat to leave. One woman was also waiting with her daughter, but the boatguy wanted more passengers, so I walked around the fishing village and the beach. I ended up waiting more than four hours, when the bad-tempered boatguy wanted us to pay 10.000CFA instead of the regular 5000. I had been willing to pay that in the morning, but was not willing to pay double after such a long wait; and neither did the woman. The passenger manifest had to come, together with my passport, but it turned out that the official in charge had fallen asleep, so we waited more. We ended up paying 7000, and had to take the niece of the sleepy official for free. The boatguy continued moaning about the money, but I was more worried about the weather. It had been hot and sunny, but now, while the sun was still shining, there was lighting around us, and closing in on us. Moreover, the engine broke down twice during our crossing, and very dark clouds creeped in on us. Fortunately, the rain started falling on our heads just as we reached shore. Even before we did, a woman dressed in military colours shouted to me that I had to pay 2000F, but I was concentrating on getting my bags to the front of the boat, got off my shoes, and jumped into dirty, oily water on a beach of pointy pebbles. The woman continued begging for money, claiming it was "marina money" - which sounded like a good joke to me, considering that we never used a marina in the first place. I ignored her, and walked straight into the police office. I felt confident: I had my visa, and the guarantee of the embassy that I would encounter no problems here. Moreover, the staff at the border control of Cocobeach had told me that the police in Equatorial Guinea was not like before, and that things had changed. I was just considering whether I should stay, or continue straight to Bata; a car was waiting for one more passenger. Thanks to a new road, this is less than two hours from Kogo nowadays. Outside, visibility was almost zero - the downpour had reached Kogo. The mother with the child cleared immigration before I did, and boarded a taxi to Bata. The niece of the official paid 5000F and was gone as well, when the old police officer asked me for 20.000FCFA "entrance fee". I calmly pulled out the receipt of the embassy, and the business card of the lady, and told him I had paid dearly for the visa, with the guarantee I did not have to pay anything anymore. He did not even blink an eye, and just repeated that I should pay. I continued to refuse, and he started to shout. He said I could be a terrorist, a thief, that Osama bin Laden also travelled on tourist visa with some of his 24 passports, and much more. Meanwhile, the marina lady never stopped yelling at me from the outside, while a drunk guy was harassing me - when I pushed him away, the marina lady told me I should be careful with him, because he was in charge of customs. I pulled my passport out of the hands of the police officer who tried to keep it for himself, and went outside. A fight ensued between the police officer and the drunk customs guy, in which the latter was pushed off the stairs by the old man. With the marina lady continuously yelling, I sat as far away as possible. It dawned on me that I was surrounded by a bunch of lunatics. The old man came to me, told me I could go anywhere, but that was a joke of course: without the stamp, my visa was useless. I tried to reason with him, tried to calm him down, but he was unable to do so, and disappeared. I was sitting on the verandah, and the others were down on the stairs - I sneaked into the office, in search of the entrance stamp. I opened the drawers, looked under papers, but unfortunately could not find it. With the day drawing to an end and no more cars to Bata available, I had all the time of the world, so I installed myself on a bench and decided to wait it out. I remembered the card of Arsenia, and her promise to help in case of problems. I gave her a call, but instead of listening to me, she did not stop yelling at me, that I should negotiate with the police, that I should have taken a flight to Malabo instead (as if she did not herself tell me that I could use any border crossing, and she knew I was going to enter through Kogo). She ended by telling me that I should not call her again, that she would not answer my calls, and then hung up. I felt utterly alone. There had been no steamy night, but I still got royally screwed by the embassy lady.
Another official approached me, surrounded by a cloud of alcohol. He kept on talking about how the police was responsible of my security, how the money I would have to pay, would be for my own protection. He asked me how I thought I would be able to move around without their support. When confronted with the receipt of the embassy, he claimed that the receipt was fake (even though there was a stamp of the embassy on it), and that the visa was suspicious because the amount paid did not show. He also said that I needed a mission statement to explain my visit, and proof of hotel reservation - precisely the documents I had submitted to get the visa in the first place. It was almost too much crap to handle. A third officer, very seriously looking, came to me, and offered me a ride to see the Commissar. He was probably the only official who was sober, and reasonable. Alas, the Commissar was not to be found, and he dropped me at the office again, and left. I was now sitting on a wooden bench again, and the only other person was the marina woman. She shut the doors and windows, and from the office, took out a rifle. She started to play with it, and pointed it here and there. She pulled the trigger, and I started to feel nervous about her now. I had not been close enough to her to know if she was drunk, too, but the way she was yelling, told me she was crazy enough to do crazy things. I creeped out of the building through the backside, and when she saw it, she came after me with the gun. She started laughing hysterically, asking me if I was afraid of her. I told her I was leaving to avoid accidents, and sat across the road. Darkness had fallen over Kogo, and I started wondering where I would sleep that night. When the car came back, inside were the serious official and the old guy. The old guy asked for my passport, and that he would help me, but when I wanted to come with him, he immediately started shouting again. He said that tourists pass Kogo every day, and that he had never had so much trouble. I was sure that, given the trouble to get a visa in the first place, and the reality of travel in Equatorial Guinea, very few tourists come through Kogo. They left again, and I now found myself with a soldier who appeared friendly, although he had been drinking, too. He told me that it had been decided that I would spend the night in jail, unless I would pay, and that I already had been labeled a "rebel" by the police officers. He asked me if I would repeat what I had said before to the Commissar, and looked shocked when I said that, of course, I would do so. After all, I had merely repeated the promises of the embassy, and shown the receipt of my visa. At this moment, three white ladies passed in the street, and I ran after them. They appeared to be Spanish sisters, working in Equatorial Guinea since 1970, and turned into my guardian angels. More than ever, I was extremely happy to be fluent at Spanish. I explained the situation, and they came with me to the border police station. Within ten minutes, the car with the police officers came back - with the Commissar, this time. He looked almost funny, in a T-shirt and a hat that had seen much better times - if I would have seen him in the street, I could have taken him for a clueless, even innocent person. But he was the guy in charge, and it quickly became clear that he was in a bad mood. We went into his office, where he took his seat under a picture of president Obiang and the Guinean flag. On the long side of the wall, a huge picture of Real Madrid: each one of the players appeared much bigger than the entire picture of the president. One of the sisters came with me, and in a calm way, explained the situation to him. I admired her: I was too upset to put things into the diplomatic words she found. But it was to no avail: the Commissar held a long speech about the importance of tourism, about visitors to the country, and that the fee for an entrance stamp is 20.000FCFA. He clearly said he did not come to discuss about anything, and it was very difficult to say anything as he continued rambling. He claimed that whatever the embassy in Libreville had said, had no value, since that embassy was in Gabon. I could not help to point out that the embassy of Equatorial Guinea is Guinean territory with Guinean people working in it representing Equatorial Guinea; but without even looking at me, he said that the Gabonese had misinformed me. He clearly did not understand anything. That is what happens in countries where the only way to make a career, is to be of the right tribe and/or family. The sister urged me to pay, and I felt pain in my heart when I took the money out of my pocket, and disgust when I saw the two bills lying on the table of the Commissar I had disliked from the second I saw him. I asked for a receipt, but they told me they were out of those, and that I should come back the next day, after 9. The nuns took me out for a nice dinner, and found me a place to sleep. When I switched on a light, a rat ran away, and the lady of the hotel closed a big hole in the wooden wall, but afterwards, more rats appeared through the smaller holes. I felt disappointed in myself, I felt angry at the situation, as I went over what had happened the previous hours again and again. I had a short night: Kogo has no electricity between 6am and 6pm, and when the ventilator stopped running, it quickly became too hot to stay inside; which was not nice anyway, because of a very bad smell in the house. Running water just does not exist here: the bathroom did not even have a sink or a shower, but just buckets - empty. When I went back to the police for my receipt, they pretended they never promised such a thing, and that the stamp in my passport in itself was proof that I had paid. Of course - how could I have been so naive to ever believe them in the first place? The Commissar himself showed up, and he told me that I was now free to travel anywhere within Equatorial Guinean territory. He also informed me that it was forbidden to take pictures. With that, all the guarantees given by Arsenia proved false - just like the guarantees given by the Commissar would prove false later that day.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Kogo border crossing (Equatorial Guinea). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Kogo border crossing. Read more about this site.