A Travellerspoint blog

Guinea

Lies, Forgery and Other Ways to Apply for Visas

Talking point number one among African travellers...

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Visas. Those stickers that allow travellers to cross borders. The regions describe as the “hardest to travel” usually have the strictest visa regimes. I would argue that that’s often why they are so hard to travel. Central Asia and West Africa stands out (as Central Africa still isn’t considered travelable). Countries in these regions insist visitors carry a prearranged visa, don’t issue them on their borders, and requires that visitors apply for visas in their country of origin. For overland travellers, this leads to problems. Visas tend only to be valid for three months, and many have specific dates printed on them. It might seem like a particular “travellers problem,” but it’s an existential one; without access, we can’t travel at all.

To combat all this, I’ve developed a broad range of skills, tricks and mischiefs to get my visas while on the road. To this date, the only country that has ever denied me is Saudi Arabia – a country notoriously difficult for travellers to get into as there are no tourist visas and strict, strict rules for transit visas. Sure, one embassy might have turned me down, but another have then always been willing in its stead. Sometimes, it requires a bit of persistence and once in a while I’ve been in for a proper fight.

For this purpose I now share my guide:

Step 1: Do the research.
Embassy staffers are bureaucrats. Bureaucrats hate sloppy and unprepared clients. Anyone stand a much better chance of getting a visa if they come prepared. Guidebooks, web forums and fellow travellers are usually able to point out which embassies are willing to give you are visa and which are not. If you can’t find the information, begin to visit embassies en-route and do the inquiries yourself. Take Ghana. Ministerial rules strictly insist that all visitors must apply in the nearest embassy to their home country. I already knew that embassies in Senegal, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire strictly follow this and will usually deny travellers a visa. The embassy in Burkina Fase is apparently a 50/50 chance, but too close to Ghana for my comfort. So I visited three of the more out-of-the-way embassies and found staffers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone all willing to make an exception from the rule. The reason? Everybody travels through the former countries, while very few travellers make it to the latter. Therefore staffers haven’t grown tired of people dropping in to ask to be exempt from the rules. As a rule of thumb, the best places to try your luck are little visited, out-of-the-way embassies. Or even better, a small consulate instead of the capital embassy.

Step 2: Please the diplomats.
The reality is that ministries are far from embassies. And the consulates can pretty much do as they please; many do. Acknowledging the diplomats’ power over you (i.e., they determine whether you get the visa you want) helps tremendously. But don’t appear desperate. And never be in a rush! Rushed travellers give the diplomats an excuse to exercise their power. So does desperate travellers. Even if you are in a hurry, don’t show it. Rushed and stressed travellers are the diplomat’s equivalent to a bull’s red cloth. Even if you know all the requirements, take the time to show up a day before you apply to “ask about the visa requirements.” Even if it’s simply a matter of asking about photocopies or the number of passport photos required. Everybody likes humility and preparedness, diplomats more so. This will, by the way, be a theme through the rest of the steps. Also, on this initial visit, make sure to talk about how friends have told you all about the beautiful nature and the friendly people of country X. Be sure to name some of the highlights and how you always have wished to visit. That will melt the iciest of diplomat hearts. Even better, come up with a personal connection to the country – for Ghana, I used the Danish slave forts on the coast, something we aren’t thought in school. So my only chance to learn about the gruesome past of Danish history was to go and see for myself.

Step 3: Exceptions from the rules
If there is a requirement you don’t live up to, say, being a residence in the country you’re in, explain your situation and ask if it’s possible to make an exception. Other embassies need proof of flight tickets or expensive hotel bookings. Preferably, you would like to talk about this directly with the consul, not the paper-pusher out front – though you possibly still have to flatter them before being allowed to see the consul. When explaining yourself, never come off as a rich, spoiled, Westerner who feels entitled to be let into their country. This might be common sense here on paper, but it’s surprising how many who let their frustrations of these visa schemes get to them. Visible anger, frustration or arrogance equals no visa. Alway. (Admittedly I haven’t tried crying.) Again, please the diplomats.

Step 3 ½: Make a solid cover story
In other words: Be prepared to lie! On many embassies being a mere tourist, who well fully knew it’s required to apply from home, but ignored this because it didn’t fit with the spend-a-year-in-West-Africa plan aren’t necessarily given an exemption. Being an unprepared tourist who “didn’t know” doesn’t seem to do the trick either. My favourite cover story on this trip has been to claim that I’m in West Africa to do PhD research. This required me to stay longer than the three months most visas are valid for. Usually, I “study” the social and economic innovation of small scale business in Africa. This is a particularly useful topic as small businesses here are ahead of Europe. Thus I can claim to research how Europe can learn from Africa – something most diplomats like to hear. Again, please the diplomats. They never look closely at my passport anyway, so usually, I just pick a few countries and claim to have spent the majority of the time there. This worked at a number of embassies in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Step 4: Fake the right documents
In HR it might be called resourcefulness. In Law, it’s probably forgery. Demands like hotel booking, flight tickets, letter of invitations, and likewise are pretty standard. Usually, it’s possible to be exempt just one demand. Say, of residence status. It’s less likely to get out of all these minor requirements. Of course, it’s possible to make bookings on sites like hotels.com, bookings.com, etc. and get a full refund when you cancel the booking a few days later. Fully refundable plane tickets are also an option, but those are expensive. Embassies don’t call to confirm hotel and airline reservations, but departing with significant amounts of money isn’t my favourite thing to do. So I just make my own confirmations. I’ve made a couple of templates from older bookings, so when required I can simply update the details based on real flights and put in some of the nicer hotels in the country capitals.

Step 5: Pick up your visa. Smile (and try not to look too smug until you’ve left the embassy grounds).

While this all sounds well complicated, most visas are easy – as long as you know which embassies are willing to provide you with what you need. My visa for Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau both took just 20 minutes from I handed in the form to the sticker was in my passport. Mali took a couple of days in waiting time but at the cost of less than 8€ (most expensive was Mauritania, Liberia and my second visa for Guinea at circa 120€). Most challenging West African visas tend to be Côte d’Ivore, Ghana and Nigeria – I still haven’t secured the latter. While the embassy in Bamako, was happy to ignore my lack of residence status, their visa was only valid for three months – it’s still four months until I get there… But there're six countries with Nigerian embassies to go, so I haven’t given up yet.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 14:20 Archived in Guinea Tagged travel visa travelling liberia guinea mail west_africa visas nigeria sierra_leone ghane ivory_coast embassies Comments (0)

How to Deal with Bribery Attempts

Many in Africa see white people as money bags, this is especially true of Guinean officers

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“All tourists must carry their Tourist Identity Card on them, at all times, or go to jail,” the soldier told me. This was the essential part of the conversation. This was what they needed me to believe was true. Not necessarily to convince me fully, the slightest tremor of doubt would be enough. However, they were unarmed, and I was buying none of it.

Not everybody are this friendlya

Not everybody are this friendlya

Bribery attempts often rely on two factors. First, the officials take advantage of the fact that you, as a visitor, is not familiar with local laws. This can lead to rather amusing accusations like “your passport is not valid at night” or “travelling alone on this road isn't allowed.” Secondly, that the threat they are making scares you enough for you to pay up. Threats of big(ger) fines, jail or dragging you to the police station are typical favourites.
Needless to say, it's a lot harder for your wallet to escape unharmed if you have actually broken the law. Though most officials prefer to do as little paperwork as possible - if any paperwork is required in said country, that is - so if your crime is small enough it can be possible to get away with minor offences simply by being a foreigner.

Kids playing in the streets

Kids playing in the streets

On this particular day, the sun was shining. A rarity in Conakry. Guinea’s capital is one of the wettest in the world. I was strolling along the garbage littered streets, doing what little sightseeing the city offer. Like many other African capitals, there isn't very much to see regarding “typical” sights. Mostly, it comes down to massive government buildings and independence monuments. Conakry doesn't even have an Independence Square - just to illustrate how few places of interest there are here.

Strolling past the Presidential Palace, I made sure to keep my camera out of sight. Photographing strategically important buildings is begging for trouble in most developing countries - like throwing eggs at a police car back home. The guards were hanging out at a small guard house behind a movable paling - like the ones lining the streets at a cycling race to keep spectators off the road. As they notice me, one starts to shout for me to move away from the gate and walk over to the opposite sidewalk. Another waves me over to the low fence. A third is simply lounging on a small wooden bench. Typically, not even in front of the Presidential Palace are the soldiers well enough trained to act with any accordance to professional principles. I walk over to them to figure out whether or not I'm allowed to use this sidewalk as the locals around seemingly doesn't care too much about which side of the road they are using.

Presidential Palace gate

Presidential Palace gate

The guy who told me to switch sidewalks leaves immediately for some reason, while the other two invite me behind the palings for a chat. This effectively traps me between the soldiers, their guard house, a wall and the palings. Realise my mistake instantly, I initially go for a very friendly approach. A method that includes introducing myself, shaking hands, talk a lot about football and smiling excessively. It only kind of works.

The soldiers ask for my papers. As my passport is at the Mali embassy for visa procedures, so I offer them a curled up photocopy of my passport’s identification page and my Guinea visa. This doesn't go down well with the soldiers, but I manage to explain to them that the embassies wouldn't be allowed to keep my documents overnight is the law states that I should have my original passport on me at all times. This logic is enough to make them accept the photocopies. It's not sufficient to make them happy about it. They then dismiss my enquiry into how excited they are for the Spanish Football League’s opening matches the coming weekend.

Conakry's only tourist attraction

Conakry's only tourist attraction

They then ask for what is the centrepiece of their bribery attempt: my local identification card. I don't have one.
“But everyone living here has one,” they say.
“But I'm not a resident, I'm a tourist, so I don't have a resident’s card,” I reply. They are unimpressed.
“All tourists must carry their Tourist Identity Card on them, at all times, or go to jail” they retort.

At this point, it's clear they want a bribe to let me back out into the street. We discuss the imaginary ID card for a bit. Me telling them I know there is no such thing as a Tourist Identity Card, they insist that I have to go to jail if I don't have such a card.

Tourists are staying away

Tourists are staying away

This time, it's my turn to be unimpressed. No chance in hell such a card exists. Driving through numerous checkpoints upcountry and encountering other tourists here in Conakry, talks about such a card have never come up. The jail talk is essentially just a scare tactic that all bribery attempts need. Something worse than paying the “fine” upfront. However, the soldiers can't leave their post, and all their friends around the gate are wholly uninterested in our little discussion.

I decide that I can't be bothered. I decide to leave. Normally, in these cases, that is relatively easy. I just say I firm “Goodbye” and walk off. Usually, this comes as a profound surprise to the people who are bothering me. Usually, I get far enough away before they can do nothing more than shout angrily after me as I leave them behind. This wasn't one of those usual times.

Edging my way through the palings, one of the soldiers grabs me and keeps me from leaving. I'm bigger than him, and he is unarmed. So is his buddy. But getting into a struggle with the soldiers could probably get me into some real trouble. I decide to walk back.

At this point, the soldiers make it clear to me that I can't leave before I've paid them. Finally, we're past the point of non-existing ID cards and not-going-to-happen jail sentences.

With independence came corruption

With independence came corruption

I tell them it's corruption.
They assure me that it's not - it's simply an “arrangement.”
I repeat that it's corruption and that I'm not going to pay them anything.
They repeat that then I can't leave.

I shrug. This is fine by me. I don't need to be anywhere and eventually - even if it isn't before the end of their shift - they will get into trouble for having let a tourist inside the barriers. I sit down on one of their benches, lean back on their guard house and put my feet up on another bench. Once comfortable, I only tell them, “Fine; I can wait” and slide my hat down in front of my eyes ready to take a nap, Indiana Jones style.

Conakry selfies to celebrate freedom

Conakry selfies to celebrate freedom

At this point, it takes less than three seconds for them to give up. “Okay, you can go” is all they mutter. I leave quickly, resisting the urge to look back at them to show the big, smug smile that is growing on my face. I'd won. Once again I'd won and avoided contributing to a system already ridden with corruption. 83 countries travelled: 0 bribes paid.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 12:34 Archived in Guinea Tagged travel police africa travelling guinea west_africa corruption officers corrupt officials bribery Comments (1)

Should I stay or should I go?

Taking My Hardest (Travel) Decision So Far

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I’ll admit it right off the bat: This is a case of traveller’s first world problem. The fact that this is my hardest decision I’ve had to take as a traveller just shows how easy, convenient and possible it is to travel – even in challenging places such as West Africa – once you’ve got used to living out of your backpack despite all the uncertainties that follow this particular lifestyle.

The Ride

The Ride

Dan, the Australian overlander who I’ve been driving around with for the past two weeks have given me an offer that’s hard to refuse. He’d offered me to join him all the way down to South Africa. I wouldn’t even have to pay half of the costs of gas, just pitch in whatever I would be able to. Saying “no, thanks” to that sure is difficult.

Central Africa

Central Africa

The dilemma is that I would probably have to rush through some of the countries here in West Africa. That is, I would have to give up how I’m currently visiting West Africa – the region I came down here to experience in the first place. The point of spending a year in an area many other travellers blast through in three months would slip my grip. This, to see Central and some of Southern Africa – regions that I’m confident that I would otherwise come back to on a later date anyway.

The choice I’m facing is – in other words – between giving up my current style of travel. Abandoning the hope of seeing and experience everything I came down here for, versus getting more countries under my belt and visiting Central Africa in a way that would be far cheaper and more convenient than I could ever hope for.

Guinean Public Transport

Guinean Public Transport

There are other pros and cons to this offer, of course. I would not only have to give up the pace of m my travels. I would have to change for moving around with locals in public transportation to driving a new fancy jeep. I would have to become part of a team, instead of travelling solo as I prefer. Also, rushing down the through Central Africa, will probably make it less likely that I return in my pace. Simply because I would prefer to visit new places rather than semi-known locations.

I would have to take out around €2,000 to finance extending my trip another three months. But that isn’t something I worry too much about. Having completed my master's, I would come home to “grown-up money” while still having the expenses of a student/traveller. In order words, it would be relatively quick to pay off the loan.

I'll just keep doing my thing

I'll just keep doing my thing

Instead, we’ve postponed the entire decision. Dan and I have parted ways for a while now. I’m heading into Sierra Leone and Liberia, while he’s going to spend a month working on his car, relaxing and taking a break from travelling for about a month. This means that, for the time being, I can continue to move at my own pace. We’ve then agreed that come December we’ll see how far we have travelled. We both expect to have reached Ghana at that point. However, depending on my progress, I’d possibly still visit Ghana before Burkina Faso. If that’s the case, Dan would go east and then south towards South Africa, while I would continue my own trip and head north to Burkina Faso at the end of December.

So my plan right now basically comes down to hoping that Dan slows the fuck down, get stuck somewhere or simply begins to travel slower than he’s previously done. At least so slow, that I don’t have to rush anything to catch up with him. Because if we both are ready to leave Ghana at about the same time, I’m hopping on a jeep to South Africa…

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Posted by askgudmundsen 13:48 Archived in Guinea Tagged travel public_transport africa travelling guinea west_africa overlanding decisions central_africa Comments (0)

A Surprising Land of Waterfalls and Natural Wonders

Sometimes Africa does offer some wonderful surprises

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Go see it yourself

Go see it yourself

Mostly know for Ebola, civil war and corruption, Guinea have shown a very different side of itself during my first ten days here.

I’d have to admit that I didn’t know much about Guinea before I arrived here. Other than the usual news stories, what I’ve heard was that the locals are very friendly (even for West Africa) and that the corruption, terrible roads and crazy humidity often make up for that. That is also why, when travellers talk about West Africa being one of the hardest regions in the world to travel in, they often think of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. However, I do thrive on poor reputations, and the fundamental reason for all my weird and uncommon destinations is an innate need to “go and see unknown places for myself” – especially countries that have been unlucky enough to get a ride in the circle of bad news stories.

Fouta Djalon Valley

Fouta Djalon Valley

Due to my lack of information, and the not-too-encouraging snip-bits I did know, imagine my surprise when Dan (my Jeep-driving ride) and I suddenly found ourselves in an adventure land of mountainous rainforest, rocky plateaus, endless waterfalls and world class hiking. Dan had flashbacks of Bolivia and, to be honest, I have found one of those rare places that doesn't remind me of anywhere I’ve been before. We had arrived in Guinea’s Fouta Djallon region.

Chute de Ditinn

Chute de Ditinn

Granted, the Fouta Djallon region only comprises a quarter of Guinea, so other parts could be less fantastic (the capital Conakry sure has a poor reputation). Granted, the horror stories about ridiculously bad roads, an endless number of officials wanting “cadeau” and a rainy season where Guinea gets more rain in August than London gets in a year are all true. But right now the travelling life seems to be trouble free.

Don't Slip

Don't Slip

We have spent a week, driving from one 60+ metre high waterfall to the next, and the excitement of exploring nature here is next to nothing. There are no guides to tell you where it’s safe to put your feet. No marked trails to follow. Safety railings is a thing of the colonial past. And there has been nothing stopping us from plummeting dramatically to our deaths, should we slip on the wet rocks atop of the falls. When the wet rocks have not been out to get us, rickety swing bridges have kept our hearts pumping and legs trembling.

Testing the Ropes

Testing the Ropes

When our poor souls need a break from the excitement, it’s possible to spot monkeys from our campsites, swing in vines and lianas in the rain forests, or climbing rocky hills for sweeping panorama views of the region's valleys. Best of all, we got it all to ourselves. The one campsite that does do official guided hikes, yes there is only one, is based in a small, isolated village in the top of a cliff offering sweeping views over the Fouta Valley. On the ‘Coca-Cola Scale of Isolation’ it’s so remote that here are neither products, commercials or merchandise for that otherwise ever-present evil empire – sorry, I meant fresh drinks company. Exploration here feels as being part of an Indiana Jones movie (the hat’s finally home) scrambling through dark caves, climbing up vertical cliff sides on liana ladders, and crawling through dense jungle.

Climbing Vines

Climbing Vines

Having no other visitors around might be a blessing for us. But for the locals, it’s hurting an already weak economy. Guinea picked up tourists interest back 2005. A small private tourist office, which was also running a campement (campground with associated small huts), had its statistic posted. More than 1300 visitors in a little village out in nowhere back in 2008. A coup-attempt in late 2009 and the presidents following crackdown scared a lot of visitors away. Recently Ebola have gotten rid of the rest. Only 28 people visited last year, and Dan and I were visitor number 21 and 22, respectively, this year. In another campement that also kept a record, only six people had stayed there in 2016 before our arrival.

Tourist Statistic

Tourist Statistic

This is too bad for a destination that offers such prime natural wonders. While corruption (not a big problem if you aren’t driving your own vehicle) and poor infrastructure will keep many from going, for those who find themselves in the neighbourhood, a visit to Guinea will – surprisingly – offer great rewards!

Both Dan and I know that we can’t stay here in Fouta Djallon forever, though we’d like to. I have to get down to dreadful Conakry to arrange visas and Dan need to continue east. But right now, we really don’t want to, and we are certainly not in any hurry to get out of here.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 03:55 Archived in Guinea Tagged waterfalls mountains rainforest hiking travel adventure africa guinea hikes west_africa adventure_travel guided_tours guinea_conakry fouta_djalon doucki Comments (0)

“Want a Ride for the Next 10 Days?”

Okay, that wasn’t precisely the way the offer was phrased, but it might well be the most accurate description of what has happened.

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Overlanding Africa

Overlanding Africa

So, apparently, I’ve been an overlander for the past few days. You know, one of those people who’ve spent a little too much time and money on their fancy car, then decides to drive around a continent or from the northern tip of Europe to the most southern point of Africa in it. Let’s just say, that the luxury of home brewed morning coffee and a nice leather seat in a 4x4 (which I don’t have to share with fellow passengers) is a big step up from what I’m used to. Even though it does require a bit of camping. “Backpacking” – if you can call it that in West Africa – is usually a matter of catching overcrowded public transportation and sleeping in damp, dirty and very basic accommodation. Running water and 24h electricity are luxuries I usually can’t afford – both are now installed in the Jeep I’m currently travelling in.

The main(!) border into Guinea

The main(!) border into Guinea

It all started with a bit of bad luck. Leaving Guinea-Bissau and heading to Guinea, I arrived in the border town of Gabu in the early afternoon. I knew it would be a longshot, but I hoped to find a car heading into Guinea on that same day. I did manage to locate the shared taxi, but even after three hours of waiting no other passengers heading in my direction had shown up. Instead, I had to wait another day and head to a hotel. Here, someone had parked a very nice Jeep out front. Clearly another Western traveller. My initial thought was straight out of low-budget travel’s A-B-C: “Sweet, I might be able to get a ride across the border for free and save €15.”

The Jeep

The Jeep

I got up early the next morning, primarily so I could hover around not too far from the Jeep. I definitely didn’t want it to leave before I had a chance to talk with the vehicle’s owner… To my luck, the owner was a cool Australian named Dan, who started the morning offering me coffee – and about 2 seconds before I could ask if he would possibly give me a ride across the border, he asked if I needed a lift. It almost – almost – makes me a bit ashamed looking back of how cynical I approached the situation.

Making friends

Making friends

Anyway, we crossed the border. We got asked for a few bribes. Got asked for a few more bribes. Didn’t pay any of them and were finally stamped in and cross the border. Overlanders and Westerners travelling by their cars, in general, get a lot more hassle from officials than I normally do. Being on public transportation, it’s the drivers' job to pay bribes, not mine. If asked, I can always just refer the police/military/militia/customs officer to my driver. Then it’s his job to pay the bribe for getting through the checkpoint. For overlanders, there are a few tactics to avoid paying. Not understanding the languish and playing dumb is one, which works if you're sure all your paperwork is good. In that way officers can't get money out of you by imaginary offenses like driving in sandals, passports that are not valid at night, having no permit to be on a specific road, or what else their imagination comes up with. Another tactic is to make friends by offering coffee, tea, cigarettes, etc.

The map's getting useless

The map's getting useless

After getting through the border, the roads deteriorated drastically. It’s no coincident that Guinea is notorious for having some of the worst roads in West Africa (that’s saying something). So we didn’t get all that far and had to overnight in the first larger town we reached on the Guinea side of the border before we could continue the next day. During those two day’s of travelling, we got along very well, and just agreed that move on together. First to a town called Mali (yes, it’s different from the country), then to the next place and so on travelling further and further. The days went past and we kind of just figure out where we would go from day to day. So far we have done so for a week, and we’re currently heading further into the rain forests, mountain plateaus and waterfalls of northern Guinea. So it’s going to be a few more days before we part ways.

Oh, and I’ll promise that the next blog entry is going to be more about those rain forests, plateaus and waterfalls...

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Posted by askgudmundsen 02:20 Archived in Guinea Tagged waterfalls military travel overland 4x4 police africa border backpacking travelling jeep guinea west_africa overlanding conakry bribery guinea_conakry overlander bribes fouta_djalon mountrains Comments (1)

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